Well it’s that time of year again; time to begin preparing for the festivities of yet another Christmas.
The Christmas decorations in our home are very simple and basic: a hand carved nativity set my parents brought back from Indonesia, another nativity scene painted by a friend on three blocks of wood shaped like trees, a little illuminated Christmas village, and a wreath on our front door. That’s it; no Christmas tree, no lights, and no lawn ornaments. It’s not that we have anything against such things, for we don’t; we used to have them all too. Perhaps that will change again one day when the grandchildren begin to join the family, but for now in this season of our lives, this is Christmas.
As I set up our simple nativity set this year, it struck me how we’ve sanitized the Christmas story. Obviously the early church did not have nativity sets, since their creation was credited to St. Francis (d. October 3, 1226). However, if they had looked at a nativity set, they would have seen the events surrounding Jesus’ birth very different than our modern and sanitized “Christianese” version. What do I mean by that?
By saying that, please understand what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to be negative or suggest that we should or shouldn’t celebrate Christmas a certain way. I am simply stating that I had an epiphany of sorts as I reflected on the various pieces of our nativity set that I was setting up. Let’s look at a couple elements of the traditional nativity set.
Now I don’t know much about astrology and such things, but I’ve read of how some people think that the star of Bethlehem that the Magi saw may have been a meteor or a comet. This would account for it being seen by them as moving “ahead of them” (Matthew 2:9) through the sky. The problem I have with that is that this version of the star downplays the miraculous. It’s true that stars don’t move through the sky, but with God all things are possible – including moving stars - and perhaps especially so when it comes to the announcement of the long-expected Messiah.
Still, if it were a meteor or a passing comet that the Magi saw, that would have symbolized death. A meteor crashing to earth brings death and destruction and sorrow and fear; a star, on the other hand, somehow seems to speak more of peace and hope and the love of God through creation. While the angelic proclamation was “good news” (Luke 2:10), we seem to have disassociated the fact that there would be no good news without the cross of Calvary as the second part of the Christmas story. For it truly to be good news for you and me, Jesus had to die. Death and destruction had to follow the cute child in the manger. Ultimately, death was the sole purpose for the birth of Jesus.
There aren’t a lot of people in the New Testament identified as magicians (“magos” in the Greek), but the Magi who visited Jesus at his birth were among them. Now obviously magicians and magic go together, but unlike our modern carnival “magic” shows, ancient magicians were often associated with sorcery, evil and even death. It is interesting to note that popular thought in New Testament times was that the gods could be controlled by the use of magic; people could be manipulated, evil spirits could be defended against, and even events could be brought about and controlled. When we read some of the early church apologists, it’s apparent that it wasn’t a denial of the miracles that was being argued against, but rather that the miracles were accomplished by the power of God rather than by magic.
As such I find it fascinating that among the first responders to the birth of Jesus were magicians, those very people whose belief and craft seem so contrary to the church and her message. The kind of people who, in a few short years, would come at odds with the Apostles, were at the bedside of the birth of the Saviour. People like Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8: 9-25), false prophets and sorcerers Bar-Jesus and Elymas (Acts 13: 6-12), were all Magi like those in our nativity sets. Magic and superstition, often accompanied by death, both physical and spiritual, met Jesus at the manger.
As I reflected on this further, I was reminded of Isaiah 45:23, “Before me every knee will bow,” a verse that the Apostle Paul would allude to again in both Romans 14:11 and in Philippians 2:10. “Every knee,” including all those magician and ungodly and occult-worshipping knees that currently bow to the prince of this world, will one day bow to Jesus.
The symbolism of the gifts is huge. The gold and incense and myrrh (Matthew 2: 11) from the magicians, was also packed with prophetic symbolism. Gold is a symbol of wealth and royalty. Jesus, who was and would be King, whose Father owns the “cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), already owns all the gold, and as such was only receiving back from the magicians that which He ultimately owned anyways. Just as any other earthly king often received gifts of gold, so too King Jesus received gold as a gift and symbol of His royalty.
Likewise the incense had its symbolism. As far back as Exodus 40:5 we see a golden “altar of incense in front of the ark of the Testimony” in the tabernacle of God. Incense was an important part of worshipping God. Historically it was a part of prayer, which raises another whole interesting question: Were these magicians praying as they offered their gifts? Certainly they would have used incense in praying to their pagan deities (1 Kings 11:8, 2 Chronicles 30:14). Moving to the other end of our Bible’s, we see the prayers of the saints symbolically rising in a cloud of incense (Revelation 8: 3-4). Incense was also something used by the rich and wealthy and was burned at parties (Ezekiel 23:41), which sheds another image to the “celebration” of Christmas. However, it was also closely tied to death and funerals (2 Chronicles 16:14, Jeremiah 34:5).
Then we come to the myrrh. What is myrrh? My dictionary defines it as “a sticky brown substance that comes from trees, that has a sweet smell, and that is used in products that give the air or people’s bodies a pleasing smell.” Myrrh was a part of the anointing oil (Exodus 30:23) and was used by Joseph and Nicodemus to embalm Jesus’ body (John 19:39). Think about that for a moment; one of the baby shower gifts that Mary received at Jesus’ birth was used for embalming the dead. Imagine presenting a new mother a baby shower gift of embalming fluid today. Hmm, probably wouldn’t be received too well, and yet that’s what the magicians gave Mary at the manger. Once again, when we de-sanitize the nativity set, we see the dark symbolism of death, and specifically, sacrificial death.
Lambs were also an important part of the worship of God. From Abraham’s telling his son Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8), to the slaughter of the Passover lamb in the days of Moses (Exodus 12:21), to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Jesus that “he was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7); lambs were regularly sacrificially offered to God, their spilt blood an atonement for fallen man’s sin.
When I looked at the little lamb figurines in my nativity set, I began to imagine them there at the manger of infant Jesus almost as a ceremonial retirement celebration. With the incarnation, with God putting on flesh, the services of the lambs are no longer required. The cute little lambs at the manger symbolized sacrifice and death as payment for sin. Thirty years later John would say of Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
When we look at our nativity sets, do they remind us of sacrifice, and that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7)? If not, it may be time to de-sanitize our nativity sets.
As much as it is true that Jesus came to bring life, his birth also ushered in a lot of spilt innocent blood. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16). Now there’s a disturbing image! Aren’t you glad that slain little boys were sanitized out of the typical nativity sets? I sure am! Yet they are no less a part of the Christmas story.
What kind of a monster would order the murder of innocent little boys? It’s hard to imagine such an atrocity. Still, it’s for the monsters in all of us that Jesus came, born of a virgin, born in a manger, born to die as our sacrificial lamb, died so that we by believing in Him, “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Suddenly I find myself no longer being able to conveniently separate the Christmas and Easter stories, for they really are one and the same story. For me the nativity set suddenly has come to symbolically depict the cross of Calvary. Something to think about.
All Scripture taken from the New International Version (NIV).