A couple of weeks ago, I read this comment: the crèche is crowded. The author of the article was referring to the tendency we have to put all the figures in the nativity scene when we put it out in early December.
In reality, there are few people in the stable at a time. Once Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem they find themselves in a cave, or the lower level of the main house where animals are housed overnight, or in an outbuilding sort of barn. Jesus is laid in a bed of clean straw. Normally, there would have been a midwife present – either Mary’s mother, another female member of the family, or perhaps a professional midwife, trained to see to the safe birth of the child and the health of the new mother. She isn’t mentioned, though she must have been present.
Once the baby was born, an angel went to announce the birth of the Savior to shepherds in the fields nearby. Why shepherds, we should wonder. Shepherds were nobodies in the ancient world of Jesus’ time. Smelly, often accused of theft, unable to give witness in court, shepherds were among the least-respected people of their day. And yet, the image of shepherd as the leader of the Israelite people persists as an ironic witness to the desire of God to have a caring relationship with God’s people.
The angel says, “I have great news for you! The Messiah, your Savior, has been born.” And then, more angels showed up singing praises to God.
The angels are in the fields, not in the stable.
The shepherds went to find the baby. They told Mary and Joseph about seeing and hearing angels with good news. Their news confirmed for Mary what the Angel Gabriel had told Mary nine months prior. The shepherds went back to their sheep, glorifying and praising God as they went. They do not remain in the stable.
In the East somewhere, a few astrologers noticed a strange sign in the heavens. It seemed to them that the star they noticed was pointing at something special, so they packed up a caravan and set off to see where the star led them.
Assuming the star appeared when Jesus was born, the journey took them many months. No location is specified for the Magi, but we speculate Persia, which is known for its astrologers at the time. When they finally arrive in Palestine, they first visit Herod, whose scholars indicate Bethlehem is the likely place for the new king, based on a verse in Micah.
The magi travel a few more miles to Bethlehem, and find the star pointing at the home of Joseph and Mary. The next story tells of Herod’s order of the massacre of any child under the age of two. So, we can guess that Jesus was about 18 months old at the time. By this time, then, the family is settled in a home, not living in a stable or cave. The magi give symbolic gifts to the family, and honor Jesus as a king.
The star and the magi, then, belong to the family home, not the stable.
And yet, the crèche has become a symbol which pulls all these stories together. We like it that they all go together, even though they mostly were never together at the stable.
So, who are they, then?
Angels – God’s messengers, watching over the affairs of God and God’s people as they intersect in human time and place.
A mother, wondering why God had chosen her, IF God had chosen her, and how she could be the mother of the Messiah.
A father, not the biological father, wondering how he could be father to the Son of God.
Shepherds – dirty, smelly, unwanted people, outsiders.
Magi – wealthy, powerful, mysterious. In the image of the crèche, I notice that the magi are of different races, even as they believe in different gods.
All of nature is present – in the animals that may have been in the stable, in the animals that brought the magi, and in the star which pointed the way.
Whoever we are, rich or poor, respected or mistrusted, believers or skeptics or worshipers of other gods, we are welcome in the stable.
Tonight is the night to place ourselves in the stable, witnessing the birth of the Savior.
Tonight is the night to place ourselves in the crèche, finding a place with everyone else there.
Tonight is the night to remember we are loved by God as much as human mothers and fathers love their children.
Tonight is the night to glorify and praise God for this amazing, wonderful, good news of great joy for all people.
Please pray with me. Loving God, we praise you for the gift of the Son, the Savior, sent to share your love and mercy with us. We glorify you for your arms which open wide to welcome all people into your heart. We sing with the angels and celebrate this moment in history and this moment in our lives when we remember with joy your great gift to us in Jesus. Amen