Perhaps one of the reasons that we sometimes fail to comprehend the full impact of Christ’s birth resides in our nativity scenes or creches. Last night as I celebrated the Eucharist at St. Patrick’s residence, I approached the manger where I placed the image of the baby Jesus in the manger. As I stood there, I could not help but notice the beautiful figures and the lovely flowers which decorated the scene. Was this or any of the thousands of nativity scenes displayed in our churches and homes even remotely accurate in its depiction of what happened some 2,000 years ago?
First of all, let us look at the stable or cave itself. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inns of Bethelem. Surrounded by the livestock residing in this stable, the Blessed Mother gave birth to a baby boy. The Gospel does not tell us if she was offered any assistance by other women. However, we can be sure that the stable did contain various animals. Livestock was precious to these people. Sometimes a goat or cow was all that kept starvation at bay. With the animals would have come the odors and filth that are usually attendant with them. This was hardly a sterile delivery room. Yet God did not regard this place as too humble for the birth of Jesus.
Let us also consider the first people to hear the news of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel tells us that the angel told some shepherds the Good News. Shepherds were not cuddly, well-groomed men and women who put on their Sunday best to visit the manger. They were the marginalized members of the society. One did not associate with shepherds. Because of their occupation, they would have been habitually “unclean,” unable to keep the various commandments incumbent upon the children of Israel. Shepherds were suspicious characters who were generally avoided. Jewish literature states that it would be better to expose one’s daughter naked to a lion than to let her near a shepherd. Yet it was to these characters that the news was first announced in the Gospel of Luke.
Matthew tells us a different story of the magi, astrologers from the East, visiting that manger. Our Christmas scenes depict these characters as kings bringing rich and precious gifts from foreign lands. Stop and consider that these men would have, in all probability, worshipped other gods than the Lord God of Israel. They looked for the will of the gods in the stars, not in the covenant commandments. Today we would call them pagans. Yet the Gospel of Matthew tells us that they worshipped this baby while King Herod, a Jew, plotted his death.
I have nothing against nativity scenes. In fact I collect them. Each year I have to make a decision as to which one I will display. However, as I look at the scene, I have to force myself to remember that this is really a “sanitized” version of the Nativity of our Lord. Jesus was born in a poorly lit stable, surrounded by animals and visited by the unwanted and untrusted people of the day. No wonder he was not recognized by his own! They had expected a Messiah of different proportions. Could God have planned anything less appealing?
Our Holy Father Pope Francis is constantly reminding us that he yearns for a poor Church which is for the poor. The very birth of Christ points us in that direction. Unto us a child is born, God incarnate, who comes to shatter our expectations and to embrace the poorest of the poor.