Crowded Christmas: A Nativity Different Than We Imagine?

December 23, 2013

One lovely image of the Christmas story has been resonating with me this season. It started when I read a blog post addressing the cultural context of the Bible.

It pointed out that we often assume Mary and Joseph were alone in the Christmas story. Blogger Yo Steve says:

Here's one example of their work in action. A Western individualistic perspective assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem alone, gave birth to Jesus alone and marveled alone as shepherds and wise men came to pay homage. 

But the Bible doesn't say that they were alone. That's an assumption. What if they traveled with family, the way they traveled to the Temple later in the same chapter of the Bible? It doesn't dramatically change our theology, but it shifts our reading of the passage.

This perspective has influenced my approach to the nativity this year. I am overflowing with so many questions.

I’ve always envisioned harsh innkeepers shooing away a pregnant teenager. Is it possible she was one, perhaps unnoticed, person in a crowd of family members searching for lodging?

If her family were present, how did they feel about her pregnancy? One Christmas film that interviews modern day residents of Bethlehem discusses “honor killings.” According to their understanding, Mary’s family would have been expected to kill her for the shame of an unmarried pregnancy. So… how did that go down?

Was she surrounded by women - aunts and cousins and maybe her mother - at the birth? Did they believe her story? Did they not care? Were they supportive or suspicious? Did they coo at the baby, help Mary learn the ropes as a new mom?

Interestingly, it’s also made me look differently at the nativity scene at our home. We purchased the set shown above while in Guatemala, an admittedly more collective culture.

Every year, when I set it up, I can’t tell who Joseph is. There are four male figurines and they all look the same! And they’re all carrying gifts.

Also, there’s a second woman. She is holding what appears to be bread, while the other is clearly “treasuring these things in her heart,” so I make a confident judgment call. Still, I’ve always been like, who is this second woman and where is the shepherd with the lamb around his neck?

This year, I’ve simply wondered if this set was created with a different perspective, one that made assumptions that more family was present. Maybe not. But the questions fascinate me.

So I set it up a little differently this year. Inched the second woman in closer to the action. Kept those guys a little closer to Joseph rather than clustering them as my symbolic “wise men” off to the side.

And I’m inspired to read more. I’ve ordered the book Yo Steve was referencing (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible). I want to better understand the context into which my Jesus was born, lived and inspired.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. How have you imagined the setting of Jesus' birth? Where and how does culture influence your understanding of the Bible? What questions do you have about the nativity? 

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  1. Denise L Hershberger9:15 PM

    Love your nativity set! I have nativity sets from Guatemala, Bolivia, and Panama and they are probably my most favorite "collectables" from my travels (well the Panama one my parents got me...haven't been there yet myself.)

    Thanks for sharing your perspective! Very interesting. Merry Christmas!

  2. Thank you. We have enjoyed this nativity for several years. So colorful and fun! Merry Christmas to you, too!

  3. ekstein118:59 PM

    interesting thoughts....and imagine the family's reaction to the shepherd, and the wise men a few years later. That's fascinating! Thanks for these thoughts.

  4. I know. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall! :)

  5. Sarah Davis4:43 PM

    Sarah, thank you so much for posting this! I immediately downloaded Misreading Scripture with Western Minds and read the whole thing... I couldn't put it down! It was the most helpful thing I've read in a long, long time. Thanks for getting me thinking :)

  6. Oh I'm so glad to hear that you read and enjoyed the book! Ours just came in the mail this week ('cause we're old school like that!), and I can't wait to dig in. Thanks for coming back and giving your feedback!

  7. Marilyn Gardner10:12 PM

    Great to find your blog through Jody at A Link Between. Thanks for this post. Another resource that you may appreciate is the scholarship of Kenneth Bailey. He lived in the middle east for 60 years and is a New Testament scholar. His book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes is, I believe, a must read for any Christian. I grew up in Pakistan and lived in the Middle East as an adult for years and love the perspective he brings. It reflects what we experienced in that part of the world. Another post you would appreciate is

  8. Thanks, Marilyn! It was great to connect with you through Jody as well. Thanks for these resources!


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