Most people have put up a nativity scene somewhere in their homes or yards, perhaps in a crèche. Ours is in a small wooden structure, with little bits of straw-colored, fake moss beneath the feet of the cows and donkeys. The wise men are arrayed in finery at the outer edge, while the shepherds kneel before the manger.
It’s a picture that takes some explaining, no matter how it is arranged. Anyone as a small child has had the details described to them, pointed out one by one. “Here are the wise men; they traveled far and just arrived.” “Mary and Joseph came a long way on the donkey, but there was no room for them when they arrived.” “The shepherds were poor and humble, but they were the first to hear the good news.” Maybe we’ll conclude with words from an old carol: the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes…
But without the full background of the story, none of it makes much sense. We assume a familiarity with the Old and New Testament texts when we show our nativities to people. Then we trust emotion to carry the reaction beyond the simple, toy-like imagery.
Confusion ensues if people have no prior knowledge or experience with the Christmas story; the Christian concepts of incarnation, sacrifice, and redemption. The sheep-shed, the royally dressed travelers, and the little baby in the straw don’t reveal much to outsiders. But they do have meaning…and the significance of the setting can be just as strongly felt as it was to the firsthand eyewitnesses on that Christmas Eve night long ago in Bethlehem.
Just as poor shepherds and unknown foreigners were the first to be brought into the presence of the newborn Christ-child, the humble stable connects with those today who may be considered, or consider themselves, outside of God’s favor or grace. For some, a nativity scene makes God approachable, as the baby who was laid in a manger, shut out from comfortable and accepted routines of life. God acted on a plane where anybody could meet Him.
The stable overwhelms the old reality of having to invest in a great deal of ritual in order to meet with God, making the sovereign King of the universe much more accessible to ordinary humans. In other words, God comes to them wherever they are and even becomes a lot like them. The scene tells people that He came to us, but not just for a short visit to take care of some necessary business. He came to be with us. He became like us, and the newborn in a rough animal shed, born of a woman and left out in the night, is Jesus’ way of saying, “I was once like you.”
And so when we present our Christmas scenes to people, when we share the story, we must remember to tell them, “We all were once like you.” For, while the dirt of the stable may be behind us, it is in poverty of spirit that we meet Christ. And so the celebration of the Christmas story does not set us apart. It takes us even farther and deeper into all the common struggles of humanity - where, what, and who they are.
Such is the tale of Christ entering into the world, becoming a part of its struggles and woes all the way to death itself. He brings all people, wise man, shepherd, and saint to the same position – kneeling before the infant in the straw. We can meet Him because He was once like us, a little baby born in Bethlehem and a carpenter who traveled dusty roads at a real time in history in Israel. But He is also so unlike us, the exalted and glorified Christ, so that having seen Him, we are never again like we once were.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend!
He knows our need; to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!