How Do Your Decorations Shape Your Understanding?


Just after Thanksgiving, at least in America, people start putting nativity sets on their coffee tables and fireplace mantels. I once had a neighbor who put a life-size lighted set in his front yard. The angel stood on the roof of his house. I think the idea of a nativity is to create a visual story of the birth of Jesus, our Lord.

The set we had when I was growing up was very much like the sets most people have, and they certainly tell a story. In fact, the typical nativity set has shaped the story most Americans know as Jesus' birth story. For example, the idea that there were only three wise men. This thought likely has traction because there were three gifts (gold, myrrh, and frankincense), but it is widely reinforced by the fact that the typical nativity set usually only includes three wise men. (And the one I had growing up had two pasty-white dudes and one very black guy, which seems kind of odd if you think about it. I believe that idea comes from a tradition that included their names.  Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India, but you won't find any of that in the Bible.)

Matthew 2:1 simply calls this band of wise men, "Magi from the East." There is nothing that indicates a number other than a plurality. It could have been two or two hundred; we really don't know. And there's nothing that precludes women from this mysterious group.  (The Greek word, μάγοι is a masculine plural word, but there are other occasions in the New Testament when a group is referred to by the men and then makes mention of women and children.) 

Another interesting picture we get from our nativity sets is the presence of the Magi while Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were still staying in the stable or animal cave below the living quarters or wherever the manger was. In fact, the birthday story itself is primarily recorded in Luke, but the account of the Magi is told in Matthew. The Magi narrative in Matthew suggests a much broader timeline. They visited the house where the child was (Matthew 2:9-10), which may not have been an animal stable. And even if that house was in Bethlehem, it could be at the "inn" after there was room made with extended family, as some scholars have guessed. Herod set out to kill all the children two years and younger, suggesting that at the point he realized he had been tricked by the Magi, the child Jesus could have been as much as two years old.

When you look at your nativity set this year, think about what shapes your understanding of the Christmas story. Is it your porcelain figurines or the Scripture? If it's not the Scripture, take some time to read the Christmas story this Christmas season. Read slowly, savor it, let it sink in and become the picture you have in your mind as you celebrate Christmas.

Merry Christmas!