Posted tagged ‘manger’

Revising the Christmas Story

December 21, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      December 21, 2016

                            

I gave a “test” to the twenty folk who make up the congregation of the church I am “kinda’ pastoring” right now. I say “kinda’ pastoring” because my friend Steve Wamberg and I mostly fill the pulpit on Sundays, and are also helping them figure out the direction of their future ministry.

The test I gave them was “True and False” statements about the Christmas story. I love it, because it brings to the surface how much our understanding of the story has been determined by Christmas carols and conjecture. Through the layers of the years, music, and imagination there has been a lot of “stuff” added to the pure biblical story.

In Ken Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, he brings out a few of these story revisions. For example, how many nativity scenes will we see this Christmas that are set up in a make-shift barn stable? Growing up in eastern Kentucky where my grandparents lived on a farm, I identified with the Christ-child born on a bed of hay in a barn that creaked and shook in the wind. Since my grandparents had a pack of barn cats that roamed the farm I always envisioned a few feline figurines in the nativity scene. Ken Bailey makes the point that in the homes of Bethlehem the stable was actually inside the house. Livestock were brought indoors at night, and the house usually had two rooms- one where the family resided and one where the livestock bedded down. The manger would have been where the livestock were kept…in the house! It’s a cultural understanding that seems strange to us, so we have simply revised it to fit our understanding better.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Whether Jesus was born in a cave, a barn, or was bunking with the cattle in the house is not a detail that changes the essence of the story. The essence of the story that does not change is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, come to earth in the flesh…fully human and fully divine!

But what about when layer after layer of imagination is added to the story? What happens when the created stories crowd out the original truth, the original meaning? As I sit on my “writing stool” at Starbucks I’m listening to Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas”, and humming the tune that tells me that the best Christmas has snow. Unlike Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it’s pretty doubtful that the first Christmas in the Bethlehem of Israel featured snow.

Saint Nicholas is a great story about a 4th Century Greek Christian bishop, known for his generosity to the impoverished. As time went on children were given gifts on the evening before St. Nicholas’s day of honor, December 6. During the Reformation there was increasing opposition to the honoring of saints. Martin Luther promoted the giving of gifts to children at that time, but sought to focus it back to the Christ-child. Santa Claus emerged sometime in the 17th or 18th Century as a blended character of Saint Nicholas and the English Father Christmas from the 16th Century.

Great story! Great and entertaining story…a jolly elderly man coming down chimneys, helped out by elves, escorted by flying reindeer. Great story!

My guess, however, is that if you gave a test to children and adults alike a huge majority would be much more proficient at knowing the Santa Claus created facts than the actual story of Saint Nicholas and…the biblical story of the birth of Jesus.

Imagination and creativity are wonderful gifts, but sometimes they steer us away from the story of the most wonderful Gift!

Manger Implications

November 26, 2015

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                  November 26, 2015

                                     

Last night a group of us were decorating the church sanctuary for Christmas. Wreaths, Christmas tree, and nativity sets. Our church has about four different nativity sets which get positioned in different spots around the room.

As we decorated and started to place the manger scenes we discovered that a couple of the sets were incomplete. In one box Mary came up missing! She had fled the scene! In another there were twin baby Jesus’s! A third set had a Mary and Joseph who were dwarfed by Goliath-sized magi.

I was game to place the different manger scenes as they appeared, but was outvoted by the rest of the decorators. What a perfect time to make people think about the implications of the birth scene of Jesus by putting out the manger scenes as we had them.

A single parent manger scene with only Joseph! What would that have looked like for Jesus? For one thing he wouldn’t have had siblings, but, more than that, Mary seems to have been the nurturer in scripture. By the time Jesus was gathering his disciples Joseph has been gone for a long time. It can easily be said that Mary was second in importance to the Christ-child as part of the nativity scene cast.

Twin Jesus’s! That would have blown everyone’s minds! I can’t even comprehend the gospel story with twin messiahs.

The more I think about it the more I’m glad I was outvoted. There seems to be enough “messing with people’s theology” going on these days!

In our own minds we’re prone to re-create the story. The gospel has had people deleting from it for years. Just as Catholics perhaps over-emphasize the role of Mary, many Protestants aren’t sure what to do with her. She gives birth and then in our theology comes up missing after that.

Twin Jesus’s! Many of us live our Christianity based on that: one Jesus for Calvary and the other Jesus to convince us that life will be comfortable and worry-free if we simply believe in him.

Giant magi and “little people Mary and Joseph!” An appropriate and relevant picture to describe how prominent our faith journey is compared to other elements of our life.

Incomplete manger scenes are disturbing for many reasons!

The Five Wise Boys

December 20, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                               December 20, 2013

 

 

The five young boys started their stroll down the center aisle of the church’s sanctuary. They carried gifts made out of plastic and cardboard, but painted to look like expensive presents from Dilliard’s. Boys have a tendency to drop things. Better to have a plastic container painted gold than a gold container containing something fragile.

There were five of them, each wearing a decorative hat or head wrap to convey their roles as the three wise men…plus two!

It wasn’t necessarily the plan! The program called for three boys dressed up to be like the “We Three Kings!”

“We Five Kings” or “Us Bunch of Kings” just didn’t quite have the same ring to it. Nevertheless, there were five of them marching down the aisle in all their glory.

Magi #4 and Magi #5 had shown up for the first time that morning…and been invited to carry some fragile-looking cardboard containers to the manger scene. They were a little apprehensive.

“We haven’t practiced.”

One of the other wise boys asked the question: “Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?” He got two cautious nods. “Then you qualify! Just follow us and we’ll lead you to the right spot.”

“After all,” added Wise Boy #2, “the Magi followed a star! They didn’t really practice either, and they made it okay!”

The first wise boy took Magi #4’s hand and said “It will be fun!” He tugged a little bit to get him to follow.

The two additional characters had come to church that morning with their mom and dad who had just become homeless. A world of confusion and closed doors had greeted their parents as they tried to keep the family together, safe, and fed. The journey to the sanctuary manger scene that morning has been preceded by visits to filled homless shelters, tapped-out agencies, and declined appeals.

Christmas looked dark.

Mom and Dad and their two boys carried all their possessions in two suitcases and four backpacks, and they walked from one place to the next. Desperation was starting to seep in to their minds. Fears about survival were becoming constant.

And then the parents met someone who said, “Let me see if I can help you!” A roof over their heads, food in their hands, and an invitation to come to church. The genuineness of the helper convinced them that this was not a superficial offer, but was undergirded with concern for their well-being.

And so they had come. Someone had picked them up and brought them…and soon after the wise boys had multiplied by sixty-seven percent.

After the program as the five boys stood around munching cookies and not worrying about crumbs on the carpet, Wise Boy #1 said, “Hey! I wonder if this is how it happened in the original Christmas story? Do you think the wise men picked up people on the way and invited them to join them?”

Wise Boy #2 responded, “It doesn’t seem right that they wouldn’t have. Why keep good news a secret?”