The Imagery of the Nativity
There have been numerous depictions of the Nativity Scene over the centuries. From simple stick figurines, to elaborate works of stone and gems, to modern pictures, motions, and living Nativities, the imagery contained within the Nativity of Jesus is vast. Where does this imagery come from? Why are certain animals represented at times while others are not? Who was at the birth?
If you’re anything like me, you get excited about Christmas. One of my favorite parts of Christmas is decorating our house. My wife and I trim the tree, hang the stockings, put up lights, and setup our nativities. We’ve got several nativity sets. Some made of wood, one is glass, one is ceramic, and one is missing one of the three wise men (I’m still not sure where he went.)
They all contain Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and of course, the manger; some with shepherds, animals, a large star and even the 3 wise men.
Why is this scene depicted in homes, churches, and movies around the world every December? I think there’s a few key pieces that draw us into the scene and this story. I’m not a theologian, these are just my thoughts and questions I think about when looking at the nativity.
First, the simplicity. Jesus came to save the world; to be the Savior of all mankind. Yet he was born where animals were kept. Talk about a humbling beginning. Let’s think about that for a minute. The child, whose birth was foretold centuries before in Isaiah, was born. He wasn’t born in a royal palace with guards, servants, or in grand fanfare. He came into the world humbly, simply, in a small town that fulfilled yet another prophecy.
For me, the simplicity of the location is what resonates with me. Whether you think he was born in a barn, stable, cave or simply the basement of the innkeeper’s home, this was not the place for a baby to be born.
Second, they were alone. Where was their family? Where was Mary’s mother or father? When you think about the circumstances, I’m sure neither family was super excited about the circumstances, if they even knew what was happening. In Matthew, we see that Joseph makes plans to divorce Mary privately (Matthew 1:19). Even he doubted; how much more would his family or her family have doubted the story? So there they were, alone, miles from their families, their friends, their home taking a journey across the countryside with Mary pregnant.
Finally, I think about Joseph as he is usually standing over Mary and Jesus or off to the side. He’s the guy that’s probably left out of the story so often. But, he’s one of the most impressive characters in the Bible for me. His heart belonged to Mary and must have ached when he was told she was pregnant. But, his faith persevered. He stood by her side and raised Jesus as his own. He is an integral part of the story. As Jesus was both fully man and fully God, he needed Joseph to be his dad.
As you go about your final preparations for your last weekend of services for Christmas think about these things. As you prepare for Christmas Eve services and what imagery you’ll be putting on your screens or walls, consider the imagery of the nativity. Think about the story being told and how these images help tell the story. Immerse your congregation into the nativity scene and captivate their hearts. Engage the imagination of the children in your audience and show them the wonder, joy, and splendor of that silent night so many years ago.
Let’s wrap with Luke 2:1-20 (ESV). The nativity story.
The Birth of Jesus Christ2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
The Shepherds and the Angels8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 Andthis will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[c] 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.