Nativity Scene Symbolizes A Simple Message


Editor's note: The following are the final two installments of a six-part series examining the origins of Christmas traditions and customs. Author Stan Brown is the historian and archivist for the Rim Country Museum, a columnist for The Rim Review and a retired pastor.

There was a time when students in the Payson schools made nativity scenes. The still-life scene of the newborn Jesus surrounded by family, shepherds, wise men and animals became a common Christmas decoration in homes everywhere, as well as in the Rim country.

Oscar Greer remembers how they made the nativity scenes in Mrs. Owens' class, and Anna Mae Deming tells of making them in shop out of shake shingles taken from old barns and sheds.

The baby was a rag doll, and the shepherds and animals were cutouts from catalogues pasted on cardboard.

The well-known Episcopalian leader, the late Sam Shoemaker, once asked Norman Vincent Peale, "What do you think God told Jesus the night he sent him to earth?" Peale admitted he had never thought about that before. Shoemaker continued, "Wouldn't the heavenly father have given him some instructions? Just as Jesus left the door of heaven he asked, 'Father what shall I tell the people?' The father replied, 'Son, don't complicate it with big words. Make it simple. Just tell all the people on earth that I love them.'"

It wasn't many years into the Christian era that the simplicity of that message was lost. Jesus became increasingly unreachable and otherworldly until a Christian in Italy did something about that.

He was Francesco Bernadone, and it was the 13th century. This lad was the spoiled playboy son of a wealthy cloth merchant in the town of Assisi. He was struggling to find a purpose in his pointless life, and became a Christian. From that time on he sought to recapture the simplicity and essence of the Lord's teachings and way of life. Francesco cast off all his wealth, denied his family and assumed the life of a peasant, begging and preaching the Gospel. He gained followers and eventually the group became the Franciscan Order of the Church.

One year Francis of Assisi was trying to get the people to think of Christ as a person who really lived, rather than a mysterious and untouchable deity. He was in the town of Greccio, Italy, and it was 1223. He determined to build a life-sized manger scene and placed a realistic carving of the baby in it to demonstrate the humanness of Jesus. This was the first nativity scene on record.

It didn't take long for this innovation to spread to every land as a powerful reminder to believers that the Lord of history is humble and approachable.

When the custom took hold in France, it came to be called a cre, French for crib. Many today have nativity scenes in their homes at the Christmas season, often crafted of olivewood, porcelain or pottery. Many Christian congregations put live nativity scenes in front of their churches, complete with animals, shepherds, three magi and the holy family. Another representation of the scene is carried out in Christmas pageants. These all bring many happy and often humorous memories.

When I lived in Phoenix, our live nativity scene on Central Avenue nearly ended in a fiasco. A sheep got loose from its pen, and the church's youth director in the flowing robes of a wise man chased it across the busy lanes of traffic, throwing a flying tackle, only to miss the sheep and capture a curbside garbage can.

My favorite nativity scene story concerns the pageant in which Wally Purling played the innkeeper. Wally was 9, but still in the second grade. Everyone knew he had trouble keeping up, but he was quick to protect his smaller classmates when they were bullied. This year, the director of the pageant had made Wally the Innkeeper, even tough he wanted to be a shepherd. She did this because he would not have many lines to memorize, and his size made it more impressive when he turned Mary and Joseph away.

The night arrived, and the encouraging audience was getting a good performance from the children. Wally was caught up in the mood as he watched from the wings. When Joseph appeared, tenderly guiding Mary, and knocked on the door of the inn, Wally was ready.

"What do you want?"

The answer came, "We seek lodging."

"Seek it elsewhere," said Wally, looking straight ahead and speaking gruffly.

"The inn is filled!"

Joseph pleaded, since they had looked everywhere in vain and his wife was heavy with child, and very tired. Each time the innkeeper's reply had been stiff, but with the word about Mary's baby and her being so tired, Wally looked right at Mary. There was a long pause, and the audience became a little tense. The prompter whispered at Wally from the wings, "No! Be gone!"

Wally repeated the command automatically, but without the stern tone. Sadly, Joseph placed his arm around Mary, and as she laid her head on her husband's shoulder, the two started to move away. The innkeeper did not return inside and close the door as he was supposed to do. Wally just stood there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple, his mouth half open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes unmistakably filling with tears.

Suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others. Wally broke the silence and called out, "Don't go Joseph. Bring Mary back. You can have my room!"

Superstar - part VI

Somewhere between the 6th and 11th centuries, the wise men of the Christmas tradition became regal kings and had even picked up names: Melchoir, Gaspar and Balthazar. Those names cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, nor does the Bible speak of kings or that they were three in number. The Greek text of the Book of Matthew calls them magi, a common term referring to ancient medicine men who were specialists in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. Our word "magic" comes from the same root.

These magi were probably priests of the Zoroastrian religion in the areas that are today Iran and Iraq. Some scholars suggest they might have been descendants of the Jews who were taken there in the Babylonian Exile centuries before. The promise of God to send a king of the Jews would have been passed down from father to son.

These practitioners of astrology were looking for the advent of a Hebrew king. They watched the skies, believing that stars and planets told the destinies of people and nations. The sky was divided into regions, which they thought controlled various groups of people. Crucial to this was the arrangement of seven heavenly bodies: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun and the moon. Their movements against the backdrop of more distant star clusters gave astrologers their information. The symbol of the magi bowing at the manger of Jesus is to say the dark side of human superstition has been enlightened. We are no longer slaves to such mysterious forces.

The Christmas star was not an apparition but a natural phenomenon. Was it a comet? Haley's Comet would have been seen in 12 B.C. Its tail, always pointed away from the sun, would have pointed the magi on their way. But comets were believed to be bad omens and these men would never have considered one to be a thing to follow.

Was it a supernova? The ancient Chinese and Native Americans recorded the appearance of such bright objects in the heavens. However, there are no ancient records, such as petroglyphs or tablets, referring to a supernova during the possible years of Jesus' birth.

Was it a conjunction of planets and stars? Probably, and this is what those astrologers would be most likely to heed. The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus confirm that throughout Syria, Palestine and Babylonia there was a belief that a king would be born out of the Jewish people who was destined to rule the world. In the astrological lore of the time, Jupiter was known as "the king's star," and it would signal the coming of a king. When the magi came to Jerusalem they asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

These men eagerly watched Jupiter, knowing that planet would tell them when the long-awaited king was born. In 7 B.C., Jupiter, the king's star, and Saturn, known as the defender of Palestine, made three close encounters. The magi were on standby alert. In 6 B.C., Mars joined Jupiter and Saturn to form a bright triangle in the constellation Pisces. Pisces was known to astronomers as "the House of the Hebrews."

The magi prepared to pack their camels. By this time, the call for a tax and census had reached Joseph in Nazareth, who took Mary down to his birthplace in Bethlehem. It was 6 B.C., when Quirinius was sent to be governor of Syria. New governors took a census first thing, and to those living there it seemed like "the whole world went to be enrolled."

In the spring of 6 B.C., Venus thought to represent motherhood, passed Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, and formed an unusual grouping. Mary was giving birth to Jesus, and the shepherds arrived to see the new king. The date of some time in 6 B.C. for Jesus' birth is due to several miscalculations of our present calendar, which makes it all very confusing. So does the fact that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. But let's continue our study of the stars.

A couple of years went by, and the astrologers were still on high alert. Jesus' first several years were spent in Bethlehem. Then from August of 3 B.C. until the end of 2 B.C., seven conjunctions occurred between planets that would knock the socks off any astrologer. The magi could stand it no longer, and were on their way. Jupiter, the king's star, was playing tag with Venus, the motherhood star. Mercury, the messenger star, had a close conjunction with Venus, while Jupiter made three conjunctions with Regulus. Regulus is the chief star in the constellation Leo, and Leo is the symbol for the tribe of Judah. On June 17, 2 B.C., Venus had a very close and uncommon conjunction with Jupiter so that from earth it gave the appearance of a gigantic star. Then in late August of that year, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Mars gathered for a wonderful grouping in Leo. At the same time, the sun, the father symbol, was entering the constellation Virgo the virgin. Taken together, it was the year to move any astrologer toward Israel.

The magi went to the palace in Jerusalem, and inquired of the Roman puppet Herod. It was Dec. 25. Jupiter appeared to stand still in the heavens because it was reversing its direction in the sky as seen from earth. It hung high over the southern horizon, located in the abdomen of the constellation Virgo, the virgin. From the perspective of the magi in Jerusalem, it was hanging right over the nearby town of Bethlehem.

Matthew reports that when they got there they found Jesus and his parents in "the house." Time had passed since the magi were alerted to the king's birth, and the holy family had moved into the house of a relative.

Thus it is somewhat inaccurate for the cre scene to picture the magi in the stable at the same time with the shepherds. But why quibble, when it is tradition to compress the entire first few years of Jesus' life into that one special scene, first created for the ages by Francis of Assisi.

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