During the Christmas season, I pass by my nativity sets every day. I have several in my house and at the Sonlight office. Their beauty brings a smile to my face.
But their simple beauty is not a fairy tale – most components of nativity sets are rooted in history. Our faith is a historical faith based on real events. So let’s dive in to that fascinating reality.
Two thousand years ago, Palestine was ruled by Rome. For the first time in the Roman rule, Rome was no longer a republic, but an empire. As the supreme ruler, Caesar Augustus wanted to know exactly how many people he had in his vast empire. So he ruled that everyone had to return to their hometown to register for taxes.
Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth. It’s at least 80 miles to travel from Nazareth to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. Quite a trip by donkey for a very pregnant woman!
So they went to Bethlehem to comply with the Emperor’s decree. God also orchestrated this decree of a pagan ruler to fulfill a well-known prophesy. Long before, the prophet Micah had written:
”But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
When Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem, everyone was in upheaval. Everyone was moving from place to place, each trying to figure out how to comply with the census, trying to appease a ruler who was off in another country and didn’t know anything about them.
So there was no room for them in the inns of Bethlehem. Perhaps an innkeeper took pity on this young couple when he offered to let them use his stable. Mary delivered her baby there. And since there is no furniture in a stable, Mary used the manger as a bed for her baby as she rested after the birth.
But why are there a group of social outcastes in the nativity set as well? Shepherds in those days were not welcome in polite society. Jewish law said that a shepherd could not testify in a court of law.
This discrimination against shepherds seems a bit ironic. Think of Abraham, Moses, Jacob and David – some of the most revered patriarchs of the Jewish faith. They were all shepherds! But somehow by this point in history shepherds were considered an underclass.
So here was a poor, probably uneducated, dishonored group of people that were the first to hear the good news about Jesus. And when I think of Jesus, this is the group He often specifically seeks out. He has a heart of compassion for them and wants them to hear His message; He wants to honor them with this important good news.
And so an angel comes to announce the good news of Jesus, followed by a host of angels singing to the glory of God.
I know a believer in India who jokes that this is the time we need to bring in the Bollywood theme – with dancing and music – because the presentation to those awestruck shepherds was dramatic and big. In Christmas pageants in the US, we usually have the angels just stand there and sing, but it likely was quite the exuberant presentation!
And what about those mysterious wise men? God put a special star in the sky to announce the birth of the Christ. Back in the days before cell phones or newspapers, this was like a cryptic announcement on a billboard in the sky – available to all who looked up at night. But you needed some background to recognize that star’s significance.
And the people who had that background and acted on the gravity of what they saw was this group of magi, or wise men, from the east.
If you go back in Jewish history, there was a time when Israel was taken into captivity to Babylonia. Among that group were members of the Jewish intellectual class, such as Daniel. Daniel and others would have had contact with Babylon’s wise men, these astronomers who studied the stars and advised the king. Scholars believe that Jews spoke to these wise men about a prophecy concerning a special star that would signal the coming of a crucial king one day in the future.
At least 500 years passed between Daniel and Jesus, and that knowledge had been kept alive among the peoples of the east. So around Jesus’ birth, wise men in the east saw the star and said, this is the star we’ve heard about, let’s go and meet the king. So they probably loaded up a large entourage for the dangerous trip, and set off.
When they arrived in Jerusalem the wise men asked King Herod where they could find the one born King of the Jews. Usually a baby is born a prince; they aren’t kings automatically. But here we have a baby who from His very birth was counted as a King. Amazing!
Herod’s advisors knew the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, so the wise men set off. And thus we get this beautiful contrast of who comes to see Jesus, and who Jesus came to earth to save. Jesus came for the poor Jewish outcast as well as the rich, influential Gentile. I think that’s shorthand for saying Jesus came for everyone.
When they found Jesus, the wise men presented Him with extravagant and expensive gifts. Shortly thereafter, Joseph and Mary flee with Jesus to Egypt to escape the violent Herod who wants to kill this new king. We assume the poor family used the money from the wise men’s gifts to fund their journey and survive in a foreign land.
It’s truly an amazing story filled with real people set in time.
So why do we pull out the nativity sets? I set them out because they remind me of the beginning of a journey where the Father sent the Son so we can know God. No one has ever seen the Father, but we know Him through Jesus who came and lived and walked among us.
And so as we celebrate Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – let us remember that we celebrate for a reason - and with joy.
Blessings to you! Enjoy this season and have a great Christmas!