Van Ens: The dangers of messing with the traditional Christmas crèche (column)
Baby Jesus in a manger, a blazing star overhead, blue-collar shepherds and regal Magi adoring the infant; nearby, the donkey pregnant Mary rode to Bethlehem, flanked by lowing cattle — does this creche scene accurately depict how the manger looked the first Christmas?
No sermon misfired more in my 45 years of preaching than a Christmas Eve sermon in which I questioned the historical accuracy of traditional creches. Some worshippers doubted I really believed in Jesus’ birth narrative. Others invited me to a Christmas store to view creches and Yuletide cards depicting the manger. These Christmas decorations and greetings prove the traditional manger scene is accurate, the way most Christians take it to heart.
Except Thomas Jefferson who scorned traditional Christianity: He said such faith was filled with “platonic mysticisms” — that is, superstitions corrupting the biblical text.
During my Christmas Eve sermon seasoned with Jeffersonian sentiments, I noted that Jesus’ birth is only recorded in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. There’s no mention of a donkey that pregnant Mary rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke reports, “Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child,” (Luke 2:5). Matthew is even more succinct: “… Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea …” (Matthew 2:1). Where’s the donkey?
The manger might not have looked like our traditional creches. Luke mentions a manger but doesn’t report animals surrounding it.
Some Jeffersonian-influenced commentators suggest the manger wasn’t in a stable. When “there was no place (for the Holy Family) in the inn,” (Luke 2:7) the Greek word for “inn” suggests an “accommodation.” Lacking room for the Holy Family where his family resided, the inn owner placed them on a spartan lower level, near a feeding trough. Quite unlike the familiar stable that most traditional creches feature.
Such news upset some Christmas Eve congregants. This description didn’t jibe with their traditional creches framed by fake snow. It’s unlikely “… shepherds (would be) out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8) if winter had set in. But what would Christmas creches be like without ice-cycles?
What about shepherds rushing to the manger with a star ablaze in their eyes? Jesus’ birth narratives don’t describe a star shining above the manger.
My Christmas Eve description of the traditional creche appeared stark. No star, no stable, no wintry shepherds, no cattle, no donkey.
At least, sighed my Christmas Eve parishioners, he hasn’t gutted wise men from traditional creches. But scripture reports these mysterious visitors showed up at a house, not a makeshift crib. “On entering the house, (the wise men) saw the child with his mother,” (Matthew 2:11).
I preached about holy legends that identify wise men as a threesome because their gifts were “… gold, frankincense and myrrh,” (Matthew 2:11). In the Middle Ages, Christians conferred regal status on the Magi. They also made up their names: Melchior, Casper and Balthazar. Such details about wise men are missing in biblical report about Jesus’ birth.
My sermon ended with glad tidings that legend had not removed Jesus from creches. His birth announced: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son (to us),” (John 3:16). My sermon didn’t take Christ out of Christmas — only relics with which believers fill their creches.
Few worshippers remembered Jesus as a sign of God’s love because they mourned the loss of beloved animals and characters that fill traditional creches. Jesus born in a manger is still the centerpiece of the Christmas story, even with Christmassy legendary details removed.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.