Nativity scenes, whether live performances or using figures of biblical personalities, can be found in virtually every American community where Christians reside. They have existed since Colonial times in America and, before that, in Europe for many centuries. Tradition credits St. Francis of Assisi with creating the first nativity scene in the early 13th century.
Nearly every Advent and Christmas season is marred with some controversies connected with nativity scenes and displays. Theft of some nativity figures, such as that of the infant Jesus, has been noted in many recent years. Some figures have been recovered only by offering rewards.
Other scenes have been cited for being offensive to the Christian community when jokesters have inserted non-nativity figures (snowmen, Santa Clauses, etc.) into the scenes. An ongoing debate has centered on placing nativity scenes and displays on publicly funded properties. Interestingly enough, even the White House maintains a nativity scene.
In spite of such controversies, nativity scenes have been an important part of the American landscape in December dating back to before the creation of the republic. In promoting them the American Christian community has alerted the society as a whole of the importance of the Lord's first advent to our culture.
A nativity scene, while not a substitute for witnessing individually to the country's citizens, has been a corporate witness of American Christians to the larger American community during the holiday season. Since nativity scenes are widely accepted by the American population as a whole, the American Christian community will find the means to continue the tradition even if such displays become increasingly challenged by those that find them objectionable.
Nevertheless, in spite of the importance of this corporate witness to American society, internally the Christian community should seriously reconsider some aspects of the nativity display. For instance, typical nativity scenes usually portray the simultaneous visit of both the shepherds and Magi (Wiseman) on the same night, when in reality, those events may have been separated by as much as two years (Matthew 2:16). Nativity scenes, as currently constructed, compress a nearly two year time frame into a one-night event, thereby giving an incorrect picture of these related but separate biblical events.
Moreover, the visit of the Magi seemingly took place when Jesus' family maintained a "house" in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:11). While it is theoretically possible that Joseph could have converted the stable location into a "house" -- he was after all a carpenter -- it is certain that the visit of the Magi took place under very different conditions than the events that transpired on the night of the Lord's nativity.
If anyone is considering making a change in how we represent the nativity to American society at large, I offer these two suggestions about future nativity scenes. One, create a true nativity scene that would only involve representations of Jesus' family and the visitation of the shepherds on the night of his birth (Luke 2). Secondly, in a nearby location or perhaps in a solitary location without a nativity scene, maintain a "Magi visitation" showing Jesus and His family, the Magi, and the "Star of Bethlehem" (Matthew 2). These solutions will correct the misimpressions perpetuated by the current configuration of the nativity scene.
Although these suggestions may correct the misimpressions about the night of the Lord's nativity, it is unlikely that hundreds of years of tradition can be undone by even an honest discussion about nativity scenes. In addition, the maintenance of two possible scenes may be cost prohibitive to those considering a separation of the traditional unitary nativity scene. In lieu of these considerations, the Christian community may keep the traditional nativity scene, but inform both Christians and the public at large that the traditional nativity scene is a symbolic representation of two events separated by time during the Lord's first advent.
In the end a nativity scene with imperfections is still a valuable witness to American society during the Advent and Christmas seasons. The revelation that God took human form to save us is an important testimony to this society and to the world at large.
Stephen Douglas Wilson is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and the vice-president for academic affairs at Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky.
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