“… even the iconic crèche is long on sentimentality and short on accuracy.”
Hanging on the wall of my basement office is a framed piece of my early writing. It is dated December 11, 1964, written in pencil, and titled “The Meaning of Christmas.” It goes like this: Jesus was born on Christmas in a stable and his mather name was Mary they had sheeps and a cow and a donkie Jesus sleeped in a manger and he grow up to be Jesus crist and his birthday was on Christmas to. The end.
It loses some of its charm when it’s copied from my childhood script—I was seven years old—and typed on a computer. But it was important enough for my mother to frame and keep until very recently, when she passed it on to me. Ah, the sentimentality of mothers!
I think of my childhood script every December when, to decorate our house for Christmas, I pull out of storage 40 miniature crèches that my wife has collected from countries she has visited around the world. Originating from places like Ecuador and Kenya, the dress and costumes differ, but there is no mistaking Mary and Joseph sitting in a stable fawning over a baby lying in a manger. A few animals, some kneeling shepherds, and three Wise Men usually complete the narrative.
It is said that Francis of Assisi was responsible for the creation of the first crèche in 1223, a time when few people had access to print or could even read. Gaining permission from Pope Honorious III, St. Francis set up a manger, filled it with hay, brought in live animals, and used live actors as a backdrop to his sermon on the “Babe of Bethlehem.” It was meant to crystallize the moment in time when the world stopped and beheld Emmanuel—God with us. Reportedly, St. Francis was so struck by the symbolic imagery that when the time came to say the name of Jesus in his sermon, he couldn’t do it.
St. Francis’s staging of the nativity was so popular that it became memorialized through figurines and re-enacted in pageants wherever Christianity was to be found. Today the crèche has become quite a cottage industry, with stores open all year round catering to this memorable display.
Unfortunately, like most elements surrounding the modern Christmas celebration, even the iconic crèche is long on sentimentality and short on accuracy. Aside from the fact that the arrivals of the shepherds and the Wise Men were separated by probably a couple of years, the image we have of the nativity relies heavily on one short verse found in Luke. It reads: “and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:7, italics added). Although many versions of the Bible say that Jesus was laid in a manger; “because there was no room for them in the inn” (KJV, RSV and NASB, to name a few), translators explain the difficulty of translating the Greek words topos (room) and katályma (reference to a place). Elsewhere in the Bible, katályma is understood only as a place in a private home, not some kind of hostel for which the Greek language employs a different noun. And second, the phrase “no room” in that cultural setting likely meant there was no space for privacy.
I’m not suggesting that we scrap the traditional telling of this story. But it does let an innocent innkeeper off the hook for rejecting Mary and Joseph, and it does injure the romantic notion that Jesus’ entry point into this world was a stable—something that is nowhere mentioned in the biblical text. What is more likely is that Joseph was received into the home of a friend or relative whose guest room was already occupied because of the census. In this scenario, Jesus would be born in the main living area of the home. And there would be a manger there because in the typical Middle Eastern home, the family animals were brought in each night to keep them from being stolen and to provide heat in the winter.1
Although this story may sound less dramatic and appealing, it is a reminder that the message of Christmas is difficult to retrieve when it is being commercialized and sentimentalized half to death.
But all is good. The nativity story does not need jazzing up. We pledge allegiance to Jesus not because he was born in a stable or rejected by an innkeeper, but because he was born at all. We worship Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
In the Hebrew tradition, they talk of God’s separating Himself from His creation enough so it can grow. They call this tsitusm—God’s making space for creation. In the Christian tradition, we speak of incarnation. Here God inserts Himself into an already crowded and often unwelcoming creation and yet finds room and space to grow among us, through us and in us.
As I think of the crèches that line every available shelf in our house, I am reminded of another profound truth. The stable may be a cute and ultimately unnecessary add-on, but the presence of these crèches from many different countries and cultures reminds me that Jesus—God with us—is red, yellow, black and white. And that alone is reason for the world to gather once a year around the crèche and ponder what has happened.
Dr. Randall Holm is associate professor of Biblical Studies and associate dean of student affairs at Providence University College and Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Man.
1. Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 28-33.
Image ©istockphoto.com. This article appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of testimony
, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.