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Crowded Christmas: A Nativity Different Than We Imagine?


How do you imagine that Christmas scene in the barn? Could it have been different?

This year, my mental image of the Christmas story has been revolutionized. And it's so beautiful I can hardly stand it.

It all started when I read a blog post about the understanding cultural context of the Bible. Blogger Yo Steve writes:

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 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.

Woah. Mind blown. And now I have 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 there, how did they feel about her pregnancy? We once saw a Christmas film that interviews modern day residents of Bethlehem, and they discussed “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? Did they hold her hand as the Christ child was born? Were they supportive or suspicious? Did they coo at the baby and help Mary learn the ropes as a new mom?

This new perspective has also given me new eyes for the nativity scene in our home. We purchased the set shown above 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 about Mary. Bu 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. With a cultural context that assumes family was present. Maybe not. But maybe.

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

Like the quote above, this shifts don't dramatically affect my theology. But they do change the way I imagine the Christmas story. And I find myself discovering it anew this Christmas. 
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? 
P.S. I bought and read the book Yo Steve referenced: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. It made a huge impact on me as I seek to better understand the context of my Jesus's birth, life, and ministry. You might like it, too!

8 comments

  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!

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

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  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.

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

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  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 :)

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  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!

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  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 http://www.djiboutijones.com/2013/12/rethinking-the-nativity/

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

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