At our house, we’ve taken down the tree and packed away all of our Christmas decorations for another year so why write yet ANOTHER article about Christmas? Trust me when I say, I hadn’t planned on it; in fact, I’d done all this research into the origination of New Year’s resolutions to wow you with(in case you’re interested, this tradition was started by the Babylonians.) But last week’s Sunday school lesson from my wonderful teacher, Beth challenged me, and because it has historical as well as biblical significance, I wanted to share it with you!
The Nativity--Fact or Fiction
I’m sure we all have a pretty clear cut picture of what we think the birth of Christ looked like; a frantic Joseph running through the streets of Bethlehem searching for a place where his pregnant fiancé could deliver her baby; the decision to use a nearby stable after being turned away by the innkeeper; the couple barely getting situated before she gives birth, then facing a crowd minutes after the birth when shepherds, kings and even an angel or two show up to see the newborn King.
The picture perfect Christmas card!
Only according to the Bible, it didn’t quite happen that way. Let’s take the stable where Christ was born. Or was he? The truth is the Bible doesn’t tell us where Jesus was born. It’s an assumption based on Mary placed Baby Jesus in a manger or animal feeding trough noted in Luke 2:7. But the Bible never says that Jesus is born in a stable or that animals were present. It also says a few verses before that the couple was turned away by the innkeeper. But is an inn the same thing that we think of today, something like a motel/hotel. According to Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, an inn is described as a primitive shelter or enclosure for travelers and their animals. The term is also used to define a private guest room in a house. Because hospitality was a widely practiced religious principle, the use of inns was culturally disapproved.
So what’s a heavily pregnant girl to do? Some Bible scholars believe that Christ was born in a nearby cave that was used to house animals while others contend He was born on the lower level of a private home typically used as a stable for the household animals. All we know for certain is that there was a cattle feeding trough nearby, and Mary put it to good use.
Three Kings? Four? Seven?
Once again, we’ve made an assumption based on tradition rather than Biblical facts. In Luke 2:1, we are told of wise men who came from the East, not kings in search of the a King foretold by a star. You’ll also notice that there’s no mention of how many of these wise men came. It’s just always been assumed there were three because of the number of gifts given to the Babe. There’s also a problem with the timeline of the Nativity. In most sets or pictures, the wise men are with the Holy family along with the shepherds(who did show up soon after the birth) and the animals(who aren’t mentioned in the passages regarding Christ’s birth.)
Another misconception based on tradition, these men might have seen the star announcing Jesus’s birth that night, but they still had a 1 1/2 to 2 year journey ahead of them before they arrived at Mary and Joseph’s house. According to Matthew 2:11a, ‘when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, His mother and fell down, and worshipped Him.’
So where did the tradition behind the Nativity originated?
The origination of the Nativity isn’t in the Bible, but the creation of St, Francis of Assisi in 1223. Disheartened by social’s focus on material goods during the holiday season, he recreated a live nativity scene in a cave on the outskirts of Grecio, Italy in hopes of drawing church members’ attention back to Christ. St. Bonaverture in his writings on the life of St. Francis gives a written account of that first Nativity display:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His Name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For the example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles."