The simple symbolism of the nativity

As we enter the Christmas season, most of us know the nativity scene by heart: The baby Jesus, lying in a manger in the cold stable after Mary was denied entry to the inn, the shepherds and wise men gathered round, along with the barnyard animals.

Of course, many also know that much of the traditional nativity, as we observe it at Christmas, may be less than accurate. We don’t know that Christ was born in a barn; he may just as well have been born in a home — probably was, theologians tell us. We don’t know that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were necessarily turned away from an inn. And the wise men didn’t show up on the scene until Jesus was a toddler, long after that first Christmas night in Bethlehem.

But the symbolism of the nativity is remarkable, even now — more than 2,000 years later.

I’m still a child at heart when it comes to Christmas. I never stop getting caught up in the wonderment of it all — of how it’s the one time each year when all of us still seem to have a little extra place in our heart for the wellbeing of our Fellow Man. And the older I get, the more I marvel at the spectacular lessons woven into the fabric of the nativity’s simplicities.

Perhaps most spectacular is the fact that the most influential man the world has ever known made such a humble entrance. As Christians, we celebrate Christmas as the birth of God himself, stepped out of eternity and into time to save a fallen human race. But even if you observe Christmas as a secular holiday, you cannot deny the existence of a man named Jesus — born the son of a Jewish carpenter from Galilee, in the lineage of King David. This man Jesus had the audacity to claim that he was God in the flesh. For that, he was ultimately executed. You might not believe the deity of Jesus, but you cannot deny that he lived. Only a handful of mainstream historians have tried, and they have failed spectacularly. You might not believe that he was virgin-born, but you cannot deny that his teachings and ideas — centered on simple things like love and mercy and forgiveness — have influenced every society that has come after him.

So whether you believe Jesus was the messiah or that he was just a man who commanded a great following, the fact remains that history’s most influential figure was born without pomp or circumstance. They may not have had People magazine or cable television in Bethlehem, but the birth of royalty was just as big a deal then as it is today. Yet in Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus went virtually unnoticed.

The Jewish people had been awaiting a messiah. Their prophets had been foretelling it for hundreds of years. But they never saw him coming when he actually arrived. They expected a mighty warrior, an emperor — not the meekness of a newborn. Even though the prophet Isaiah had written generations before that the messiah would arrive as a baby in Bethlehem, no one was looking for him as the kingdom crowded into Bethlehem for the Roman census. 

I think about that, and I think about how even now, many of us — including Christians who should know better — look for God to show up in mighty ways, and we overlook the smallest of blessings that are bestowed upon us every single day — blessings that are just as much undeserved as they are unappreciated. The Jews of Jesus’s day were looking for their messiah to show up with a thunderous entrance; they hardly expected him to show up so quietly and humbly, yet there he was, with only Joseph and Mary and the livestock witnessing his birth. And the same remains true today.

The traditional image of Joseph and Mary as more or less outcasts who were turned away when seeking lodging, forced to sleep in the cold, is probably among the inaccuracies of the nativity’s traditional observance. Yet their arrival in Bethlehem was hardly a celebrated one. Mary didn’t arrive on a stallion or a camel but on a lowly donkey — just as, decades later, Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a horse as a symbol that he came in peace rather than to seek war.

Because the Greek word for “inn,” kataluma, is also used to describe the reception room in a private home, it is widely speculated that Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from an inn in the way most of us imagine, but that they were instead relegated to the lower level of a family home that was overcrowded due to the census being taken. The animals were brought into the lower level of the home at night for warmth and protection, so the manger aspect of the nativity still fits. Either way you interpret it, Jesus was born amongst the animals and laid into a feeding trough after being swaddled. It’s hard to imagine a more humbling entrance for a king. 

Years later, Jesus would say, “No man comes to the father except through me.” And through his humble birth, an everlasting example was set for how man should approach God: with humility and obedience. If the later teachings of Paul the Apostle taught Christians anything, wasn’t it that a fallen man cannot approach God without putting aside his pride? In fact, the humble birth of Jesus seems to line up with Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth, when he said: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

It’s remarkable that the first people the angels appeared before to herald the birth of Christ were the shepherds. Like so much of the nativity, tradition has probably colored the truth of the shepherds. They’re traditionally viewed as society’s outcasts, and certainly there were eras and cultures in which they were just that (research Aristotle’s writings on the shepherds of Greece), but in the day of Jesus, they were likely more highly regarded than that. Still, it was hardly a celebrated profession, and certainly not what anyone of stature would be doing. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, putting in long hours and often sharing their huts with their sheep. 

Yet, it was the shepherds — not the wise men — who were summoned to the manger by the angels. It was the clearest illustration of just who Jesus came to redeem. In those ancient societies, favor was curried upon the esteemed — royalty, landowners, the eldest sons. But with the arrival of Jesus, the angels bypassed the esteemed for the downtrodden. It was symbolic of the way Jesus would live his life: shunning the company of the esteemed for the company of people who were just like those shepherds — the very people the sanctimonious Pharisees and other self-righteous people of his day spent their entire lives thumbing their noses at (and how about the symbolism within that aspect of it all, driving home the point that religion cannot save anybody). 

Of course, the wise men did eventually show up, because Jesus did come to save everybody, not just a certain class of people. But isn’t it fascinating that when the Magi did arrive, they came bearing expensive gifts — while the shepherds, who had been first on the scene at least several months earlier, came with nothing; they had nothing to offer but their presence. It had long been a practice of the Hebrew people to offer sacrifices; Joseph and Mary themselves went to offer a sacrifice soon after Jesus’ birth. But the shepherds’ arrival with nothing to offer was the first indication that in this new age of grace, there would be nothing that man could offer to merit God’s grace.

There is so much about salvation and the new age of grace that dawned that first Christmas morning in Bethlehem that Christians wouldn’t understand until the later teachings of the Apostle Paul. And, yet, so much of it was illustrated in the symbolism of the nativity. Merry Christmas!

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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