Matthew 2: 1-18
It’s an important thing to remember; the lectionary reading for today ends at verse 12, but it’s important to remember what happens after Jesus’ birth, in Matthew. The coming of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus, even as a human baby, meant a threat to people in power.
You read this whole periscope, therefore, so we are reminded that the coming of the messiah does indeed bring a sword; that Herod was so threatened by the appearance of three wise foreigners to his land looking for a king foretold in the heavens, that on their word, he sends soldiers to kill every child under two years old in the district the wise men mentioned they were headed toward, as a way of ensuring that that one child would also be eliminated.
It is important to remember that these things happen. Power is jealous. That which is good in this world is often opposed by those for whom the world will change.
It is important to remember, but it is not my main point today.
Many churches these days will display nativity scenes in their sanctuaries, or outside in their yards. Many folks will also have them in their homes.
Do you know where the tradition of nativity scenes comes from? The inventor of the idea is generally understood to be none other than St. Francis of Assisi himself! That makes nativity scenes a tradition some 800 years old.
From his invention, we see Polish woodcarvings that depict the steeples of one town’s churches surrounding the holy family; we see Veggietales characters as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and Jesus; and scenes that are on the lawns of courthouses, private residences. We see live ones, static ones, rubber ones, stone ones, ones dressed in traditional first century middle eastern garb, and ones that reflect the regular dress of the people who created it.
My son has a self contained one that holds only the Holy family, that as created out of a gourd, and the people inside are dressed in traditional Bolivian garb, with Mary wearing that distinctive fedora women wear there.
If you have a crèche, you probably have a story about where it came from.
The birth of Christ, and his childhood, are universal touchstones. Many of us know what it means to care for a newborn and infant. We may not know what were used for diapers on Jesus; Procter and Gamble didn't exist back then. But sleepless nights from colicky babies is something Mary may have known as well as us. The wondering when the proper time is to transfer the baby to more solid food; the worry if the baby will get enough to eat if Mary’s milk dried up too early. Just as we have these worries now, Mary may have had them then.
Because Jesus came as a human being, we all understand what his life was like, to a certain degree.
This is what Francis wanted to see, I think. He invented the practice after having gone to the traditional site of the birthplace, to the church built over the site, and the reality of such an occasion was what he wanted to highlight; this is why he invented the practice. That’s real straw, those are real donkeys and goats, these are the smells and the sights that greeted the Christ child when he drew his first breath on earth.
I think he also would have loved that these scenes have taken on the colors and the clothing and the styles of the cultures that create them-it highlights to me anyway, the universality of the gift of the messiah. I think he would have loved that these scenes can be made into toys, even LEGOs and Veggie Tales!
This story is for everyone; so everyone is allowed to dress their characters as they want to. Masai tribes-people can put Kente cloth on their figures-Japanese can put kimonos on theirs.
“Unto us a son is given”, we sing in the Messiah. This means the whole world, no exceptions. For some, that is a blessing. For others, as we read at the end of the passage, it is a threat.
Which is it for you?