Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst.
Credit: Art and the Bible
By Susan Norman
RECENTLY I have had to re-think my image of “that poor, lowly stable,” which features as the birthplace of Jesus in my favourite Christmas carol. Apparently, the structure itself is unlikely to have been the barn-like building adorning many a Christmas card or nativity set. No stable is actually mentioned in the gospels, just the manger. This trough for feeding animals is the only indication that Jesus was born in a stable.
Ancient tradition held that Jesus was born in a cave, because in the Middle East many animals were stabled in caves. The image of a cave continues to be prominent in the icons and liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Other scholars suggest a typical two-room Palestinian home where the lower portion housed the animals during the nighttime. Here unexpected visitors could sleep if the guest room (a lean-to room on the roof or at the side) was already full.
New Testament scholars have strengthened this understanding of Jesus’ birthplace in recent translations of the original Greek: “There was no guest room available for them.” If the over-crowded “inn” and the “stable” are mistranslations, how can we think about the lowly birth of the King of the universe? Thankfully, there is more than enough in the straightforward account to feed our imaginations and teach our hearts to marvel anew at the humble place that housed Mary and Joseph and their precious infant.
Although the animals may not have been standing around as Jesus was born, they were certainly nearby. Mary used their feeding trough as a resting place for her baby. His first home was not a king’s palace or a five-star Hilton. No wonder the shepherds - an uncouth bunch by all accounts - showed no reluctance to rush off to see the long-expected Messiah, the promised Lord! They were neither well-dressed nor sweet-smelling; they would have been quite at ease in a cave or cottage where animals fed from mangers.
Those shepherds were the first of many poor and marginalized folks who spread the good news of Jesus. Later came the healed lepers, the once-blind beggars, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, all marvelling at the good news for the poor, not just the rich: eternal life for the sinners and for the “righteous” who recognized their own sin.
Even after his birth, Jesus’ family did not find accommodation suitable for a royal family. In fact, they soon became refugees, fleeing the murderous King Herod into the far-off land of Egypt. As an adult, Jesus chose homelessness and the hospitality of others as he journeyed far and wide with his life-giving message.
Though homeless himself, he became a homemaker for those around him. He interrupted his teaching, about which he sensed a great urgency, in order to feed his hungry listeners. He washed the dirty feet of his followers. When he was about to leave his disciples, entrusting them to carry his message of salvation to the ends of the earth, he did not give them a blueprint for changing the world or teach a crash course in leadership. Instead, he barbecued fish beside the lake. Cold and hungry from a night of fishing, his followers needed food, warmth and assurance of forgiveness. Jesus met those needs.
And, come to think of it, Jesus is still homemaking. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” he told his confused and frightened followers. Part of his “job” in the eternal realm is to make a home for us!
What does hospitality look like in our lonely world of elegantly decorated homes, perfectly spotless kitchens and gourmet meals? Do we need an abundance of material goods before we invite others into our lives? Can we make homes in humble spaces for those we want to love and welcome? Perhaps the lowly place which housed the Christ Child – whether a cave or a lean-to or a crowded family dwelling – can remind us about the importance of creating a home for others, no matter what our circumstances, just as Mary used an animal feeding trough to cradle the Saviour of the world.
Susan Norman works with graduate students and faculty for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s campus ministry at the University of British Columbia.
The Flight into Egypt (1408-09) by the Van Limburg brothers.
By Ross Hebb
SCRIPTURE does not provide any list of animals that were present in the stable when our Lord was born. It is traditional Christian artistic portrayals that populate the stable with the standard host of sheep, ox and ass. These particular animals appear at least as much due to the need for prophetic fulfillment and their symbolic message as they do from historic reality. Usually absent from the nativity scene are the two species which are the most popular in present day Western society - dogs and cats. An animal sometimes added to the Nativity scene, and one unlikely to be strutting about historically, is the peacock - a symbol of immortality.
And so why is the ass or donkey present? First, as a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah wrote, “The ox knows its owner and the ass his master’s crib” (1:3). Christians have long seen this text fulfilled in our Saviour’s Nativity. Of course the sense in which the ass knows his master is a profound one for the babe is its Creator, not simply its owner.
Another Old Testament reference for the ass is the remarkable story of Balaam in Numbers chapters 22-24. The reliability of the animal is highlighted in that story where the beast saves its rider from death only to be beaten by its master. When the donkey finally speaks, its faithfulness and stability are contrasted with its master’s rage and volatility. In that narrative Balaam goes on to bless the Hebrews as they approach their final destination. God’s people are portrayed as an unstoppable force, for their fate is the fulfillment of God’s purposes, which will not be thwarted. By extension, this applies to the blessing to all humanity that Mary’s son has come to accomplish.
The prophetic import of the donkey at the Nativity of Jesus is not limited to the past. It also points forward to events yet to be accomplished. First, there is the almost immediate need for the donkey as a means of escape. The wise men’s visit highlights both the universalism of the Saviour’s mission and the less-than-joyful reception of the Good News by men of the world. King Herod’s feigned devotion masked fear and loathing for a child born to be King. The lowly donkey of the Nativity was required to carry both recently delivered mother and newborn Child in their flight to Egypt.
Finally, some thirty years later, as we are reminded by the Prayer Book Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, the donkey carries Jesus again. This time He enters the Holy City as the “prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” The masses celebrate and the crowds marvel. Again prophecy is fulfilled: “Behold Thy King cometh unto thee, meek and sitting upon an ass.” But as Christians need to be reminded, meek does not mean weak. Jesus purges the Temple of the moneychangers and the merchants. His House is to be a place for prayer, not of commercialism, distraction and noise. So, too, in this holy season may the house of our souls be a place of quiet, devotion and peace.
Dr. Ross Hebb is the Rector of St Peter’s Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
The Adoration of the Magi by Giotto (1304-1306).
Credit: Art and the Bible
By Don Harvey
The Star of Bethlehem, so often referred to as The Christmas Star, is not part of the Christmas story as told in St. Luke’s Gospel. There is no mention of it on that first Christmas night, and even if it were somewhere in the sky it would have been eclipsed by the glory of the heavenly hosts who surrounded that barren hillside to rejoice in the birth of the Saviour.
The star makes its presence in St. Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi, which in all likelihood was some time later when Jesus no longer is referred to as a “babe” but rather as “the young child”:
When they heard the king they departed; and lo the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, til it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. –Matthew 2: 9,10
We tend to meld the two great events of the Nativity and the Epiphany into one
compact scene. In most of our Christmas pageants there are a variety of characters depicting animals, shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family, with usually a child carrying (or even disguised as) a brilliant star leading the way.
These roles are portrayed by children with glistening eyes and innocent hearts who experience the reality of the scene in a way that adults never can recapture.
Before the invention of the telescope, any of the five planetary bodies visible to the naked eye was referred to as a star. We also use the same word to refer to someone who is famous, especially in the entertainment industry, while as a verb it often refers to a particular, special role a performer assumes when we say “he/she is starring in...”.
Our Christmas / Epiphany Star takes on all of these attributes. It was a real manifestation of a bright light in the sky (there is secular evidence to support this); it was symbolic of the birth in time of the timeless Son of God and that He “stars” in the drama that unfolds, which changes the world and our lives forever.
The main function of the star was to lead others, and not just God’s “chosen people,” to
Jesus. In fact it gives the popular word ‘inclusive’ a whole new dimension as leaders of other nations come not just to bring gifts but “to fall down and worship.”
As a contemporary song asserts “How great is our God.” We come to the realization of that greatness being symbolized by the very stars of heaven recognizing His presence, while at the same time we are humbled when we realize that this great God chooses to come in helplessness and poverty in order to share in our lives. The enormity of this strikes home when we contemplate the manger scene and then recall the words:
Out beyond the shining of the furthest star
Thou Thyself are stretching, infinitely far.
Yet the thoughts of children
Hold what words cannot;
And the God of wonders
Loves the lowly spot.
–W.F. Faber “Jesus, gentlest Saviour”
Lastly, since the main purpose of the star was to lead others “to where the young child lay,” in a very real way we not only follow the star ourselves, but we reach out to make sure that we are not alone on that journey, that others will join us.
This Christmas there are so many seeking a sense of fulfillment, peace and belonging, who often are not able to articulate their yearnings. Yet they so readily can be restored by following the path of the Star to where Jesus waits for them with welcoming arms. Many might never get the courage to walk that path alone, but would readily do so if there was someone to accompany them along the way. Could that someone be you?
The Christ Child stood at Mary’s knee
His hair was like a crown
And all the flowers looked up at him
And all the stars looked down.
–G.K. Chesterton “The Christ Child lay on Mary’s lap”
The Rt. Rev’d Donald F. Harvey is Episcopal Vicar for the Anglican Network in Canada and resides in St John’s Nfld.
The Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Dürer (1504-1505).
Credit: Art and the Bible
By Ranall Ingalls
APART FROM the exotic visitors and their gifts, the scene at the arrival of the Wise Men in Nazareth appears common enough, and unremarkable. A poor mother holds her child to her breast, her husband not far away, no doubt, but in the shadows. What is here of any importance? Was it really necessary to travel so long to see this? Children are born in poverty every day. What can make sense of the long journey to see something anyone can find close to home?
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
–T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”
And the difficulties are not simply external. The journey requires wisdom and discernment. With the help of the best fruit of human wisdom and insight available to them the Magi recognize the star as a sign of a king to be born among the Hebrews. This takes them a long way - to Jerusalem, the centre of whatever wealth and power were to be had in this backwater of the Roman Empire. But it is not enough. The Scriptures send them the rest of the way, deep into poverty and obscurity, to Bethlehem, and to danger. The journey in time and across distances is an outward and visible sign of an inner journey of growing discernment and deepening desire. But this spiritual journey is no escape from time and place and history. It is no escape from danger and suffering. Against their will, they have become pawns in King Herod’s plan to kill the child they have come to seek. What could make sense of so costly a journey, to such a modest end?
The answer is in the Child. To outward appearance he is as any other child. But the gifts the wise men bring are signs to guide the mind and heart from appearances to their reality. As the well-known carol ‘We Three Kings’ reminds us, gold is the sign of kingship, incense of the presence of the divine (‘incense hails a deity nigh’), myrrh of suffering and death. Together, they reveal the child as ‘King and God and Sacrifice.’
The gift of gold will not lift the young king out of poverty. His purpose, the reason for his birth, is to embrace poverty. This king has put aside riches to come among his people to share their emptiness and its terrible consequences.
The gift of incense will not lift the child from ordinary things and ordinary people. It will not exempt him from ordinary tasks, or save him from suffering. In him God has humbled himself to change and transform every aspect of human life and history that we are tempted to write off as common.
The trivial round, the common task
Will furnish all we ought to ask
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
–John Keble, “New Every Morning”
Perhaps more than any other aspect of our lives, we are tempted to write off suffering as pointless, useless. Like weakness and failure, it makes us ashamed. We imagine that we are alone, and that these are signs or evidences of rejection. When we see these things in others, we instinctively draw back and turn away. ‘It must be their fault somehow,’ our actions proclaim. To outward appearance and our hard hearts, it appears that God has abandoned those who are sick, dying, weak, unemployed. So long as we begin at the Incarnation, we cannot look at or understand suffering in this way anymore. God has made the shared lot of human beings and everything that belongs to it common ground where the divine and the human meet: the divine partaking of humanity, and the human partaking of divinity.
The gift of myrrh is the key. It reveals what kingship will mean for this child, and what it will be to carry ‘all the fullness of deity’ into every part of human life. Myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial. It is a sign that Christ has come to die, like the ‘manger’ shaped like an altar in icons and ancient paintings of the Nativity. At the same time, it reveals what true glory is. Here is a King and God who shows forth his almighty power ‘most chiefly in showing mercy and pity.’ TAP
Dr. Ranall Ingalls is the Rector of the Parishes of Sackville and Dorchester, N.B.