Every family has its own particular traditions at Christmas time, often inherited from our parents, and our family is no different. For us an essential part of Christmas is the nativity scene, which we set up on a table in the hallway. Over the years we have had a variety of different nativities, each one a little different than usual. Years ago we had an African nativity set. Then my father made a cross-stitch set. Now we have a wooden set which we bought a few years ago at a craft fair in the Philippines.
In the Philippines the nativity scene is called a Belen – from the Spanish word for Bethlehem. If you visit the Philippines at Christmas time you will discover that the Belen is an essential feature of churches, shopping centres, offices and homes, sometimes done on an epic scale, with life-size figures and flashing lights. Ours is a much simpler Belen, with simple, abstract characters carved out of stained but unpainted wood. But it is a typically Filipino Belen, with the scene framed by palm trees and a five pointed star ‘shining’ above the stable.
The tradition of the nativity scene goes back to 1223 and St Francis of Assisi, who was concerned to find a way of celebrating Christmas that reconnected ordinary folk to the story of the baby born in Bethlehem. In a cave outside the town he set up a scene with local people playing Joseph and Mary, a live donkey and ox borrowed from a friend, and a crib with straw with a wax figure of baby Jesus. This was so popular that people in neighbouring villages and towns copied the idea, and so the custom of setting up a nativity spread. Over the years additional figures were added to the nativity – angels, shepherds, sheep, wise men, even the wise men’s camels!
This Christmas morning let us visit the Belen and discover who has come to worship baby Jesus.
First of all, there is the ox and the donkey. I was going to ask what they are doing there, but after all it is their stable, and I suppose they have a right to be there! The interesting thing is that the very earliest Christian paintings of the nativity show the ox and donkey with baby Jesus – long before all the other characters appear, even Joseph and Mary – and as we have already discovered they were part of St Francis’ original nativity scene. But you won’t find any mention of an ox and donkey in Luke’s Gospel. Rather we have to look elsewhere in the Bible to find them. In Isaiah 1:3 we read:
The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its Lord, but Israel, my own people, has no knowledge.
That may have been true in Isaiah’s day, but now the good news has been given to the shepherds, and they have come to visit the child in the manger. But before we move on to the shepherds, there’s one more thing about the ox and donkey. They remind us of the old tradition that on the morning of Jesus’ birth all creation – animals included – recognised the coming of the Saviour of the world. Indeed on our Belen, the donkey and the ox are joined by two doves that have perched on the roof of the stable.
Next to worship baby Jesus are the shepherds. They came from the fields just outside the town, where they had been looking after their flock of sheep, when suddenly and unexpectedly an angel appeared. How did they react? They were terrified! And who can blame them?
“Don’t be afraid” said the angel. “I’ve come with a message of good news. Tonight the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. This is how you will recognise him: a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.”
And then a whole army of angels put on what must have been an extraordinary light show for the shepherds as they praised God: Glory to God in highest heaven!
Eventually the angels disappeared from sight and the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem, no doubt waking up half of the town as they looked for the baby. Eventually they found Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, just as the angels had described.
So here in our nativity scene are the shepherds. It looks like they’ve brought some of the sheep with them, though I imagine that in reality they left the flock to look after themselves in the field. Shepherds, by the way, had a reputation for being rough characters; it was certainly not a glamorous job! They were out in the fields all night, in all weathers. If one of the shepherds came and sat down next to you in church, you would certainly know it because you would have smelt him coming! In fact, being a shepherd job-wise was pretty much as low as you could get. Yet it was ordinary, down to earth, folk like these who were the first to be given news of the birth of the saviour.
Now here is a question for you – what did the shepherds bring?
There’s a line in the carol:
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
However, Luke doesn’t say that the shepherds brought a lamb. Instead they brought something else: a story. A story of angels and a message about a baby. And it seems that this story was as precious to Mary as if it had been an expensive gift, for “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
If the shepherds are ordinary, everyday folk, our next visitors are the opposite, exotic foreigners from the east – the wise men. They don’t feature in Luke’s story at all, in fact they come from Matthew’s account. And I’m sure that they didn’t arrive at the same time as the shepherds, for they had much further to travel as they followed a star, the sign of a new-born king. In fact it is quite possible that Jesus was a toddler by the time they arrived.
We often call them the three kings, only the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them and it doesn’t say that they were kings! It does say that there were three gifts, and what strange gifts they were – gold, frankincense and myrrh. We all know what gold is, but what about frankincense and myrrh? They are both aromatic – strong smelling – resins extracted from trees. They were used in medicine, cosmetics and worship. What strange presents for a baby boy!
Perhaps because the wise men are so mysterious, all sorts of legends and stories have been told about them – that they were rich, that they were kings, that their names were called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. But we will just stick with the basic story in the Bible and place them next to Jesus, for Matthew tells us that they ‘bowed down and worshipped him’. They were the first gentiles and foreigners to acknowledge Jesus, anticipating all the people from the many nations of the world – including us – who have searched for and discovered Jesus as our king.
And so all the visitors have arrived at the stable. The birth of any child is a cause for celebration and is an occasion for congratulations, visitors and gifts. In this respect the birth of Jesus was no different, but the people who came to visit were not your usual visitors. Imagine if Jesus had been born in the maternity unit at Whittington Hospital. The shepherds would have been turned away as unhygienic, the wise men told that only family members could enter the ward, and the ox, donkey and assorted sheep wouldn’t even get through the main doors! But because Jesus was born where he was born, in a stable that probably wasn’t much more than a tumbledown shack, all were able to approach the child, whether rough locals like the shepherds, exotic foreigners like the wise men with their costly gifts, and even the beasts of burden that had to share their stable and their stall.
And here at the very centre of the nativity, the reason the visitors are here and we are here, is baby Jesus, with Mary and Joseph close at hand. Like the donkey and the ox, the shepherds and the wise men, we too have come to the manger and kneel to worship him.
In the words of a prayer we praise the One born to be our Saviour, Lord and King:
Today, O God, the soles of your feet have touched the earth.
Today, the back street, the forgotten place have been lit up with significance.
Today, the households of earth welcome the King of heaven.
For you have come among us, you are one of us.
So may our songs rise to surround your throne as our knees bend to salute your cradle.
(Prayer found at Starters for Sunday – follow link for Christmas Day)