Faith Works 12-1-12
How It Really Was Back Then
Pope Benedict is putting out a new book about Jesus, and apparently there's some excitement, or controversy, or just some ginned up debate over what he says about Christmas.
It wasn't, we're told (I haven't seen the book yet), exactly like your standard Christmas pageant. Supposedly Il Papa claims there were, at the actual Nativity, no donkeys or cows, and the Magi, aka "wise men" not only weren't named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, they didn't show up at all until Jesus was two or so.
I'll bet he also says the spare room outside the main house wasn't a quaint, atmospheric stable, either.
My bemusement at this "news story" is because none of this is "news" in any sense I can recognize. If you've been to Bethlehem itself, you know that the site revered there is actually a rock-hewn cavern which guides tell you served the locals as stables for centuries. And who hasn't had the quiz question go by them at church asking "how many wise men came to visit the newborn king?" to which the answer is "we don't know, the Bible only says 'wise men' in plural." Could have been twenty, might have been two. Gifts numbering three are specified, so three to carry one each (gold, frankenstein, and myrrh, as I recall) just made sense.
Did they ride camels? What animals were in or around the stable or guest room for out-laws, or whatever a "kataluma" means in Greek to explain Luke 2.7?
If you want to know why the standard Nativity scene has the animals it does, don't look to Luke, but to Isaiah, specifically verses 1.3 & 60.6 (go ahead, look 'em up, I'll wait).
They fit the story, just as the appearance of the magi from Matthew 2 is blended in. We know the conventions of storytelling in a graphic novel, and when one character turns in a panel to the left to see one antagonist, then is approached by another person from the right with a different background, we don't overthink the art, we just understand that time passes. Medieval art, which has quite a bit in common with graphic novels, does this kind of compression or multiple appearances of the same figure in a single scene, and the viewer quickly "learned" how to read the plot development.
So it went with Nativity depictions; in the thirteenth century, when St. Francis in Assisi gathered up a bunch of local players and creatures to create the first "crèche" scene, he used the stock images of the day.
Now, in Italy, there's a tradition whose epicenter is in Naples, on the Via San Gregorio Armeno, a sight I'd love to see someday. Along this narrow, winding street that passes an ancient convent of the same name, there are dozens of makers of "il presepe," or depictions of the Nativity. Mary is whatever ethnicity or style you'd like to see somewhere along the shop windows of the artisans, and Joseph is anything from ancient & elderly to mature but vigorous with bulging muscles and a huge axe in hand (no doubt to cut the umbilical cord).
And the rest of the hundreds and thousands of scenes are the stock images of the Bethlehem birth, placed in familiar if wildly inappropriate contexts.
To be fair, most of them emphasize quaintness, age, and beauty, so you find the setting in Roman ruins and olive tree groves, or Gothic surroundings and painstakingly detailed oak trees, all with barn wood details and observant animals all around. But there are quite a few that put the story in modern terms, in current circumstances: in a garage and 50's diner elements, or on a recognizable street in today's Napoli, or Roma. There are crèche sets with clowns and acrobats, in a Formula One repair bay (the driver's seat serving as manger), or with popular animated series figures playing the various parts.
I think we all know that what we know about the events around the first Christmas aren't accurate. It wasn't how we imagine. What all these representations help us say, to affirm, is that it happened. It happened here, as in here in reality, and the message of why that actual birth is important is that it has an import for us, who we are, and where we live. That's what makes these updated, conflated, and augmented manger scenes so touching, and so meaningful, even if not historical.
But I draw the line at a Hobbit-themed Nativity. I think.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your favorite crèche set at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.