Seeing Beyond Ourselves

By Sharyn Hall

On January 6, we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. From the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the Magi, who see a brilliant star in the heavens and recognize that a child has been born who will influence human history. They make an arduous and dangerous journey into the land of the Hebrew tribes and Roman overlords to find this child.

In our churches at the feast of Epiphany, we add the three Magi to our Nativity scenes and then we believe that the pictures are complete; but are they? 

For centuries there has been a tradition in the city of Naples, in Italy, to enlarge the Nativity scene to reflect the importance of the birth of Jesus for all people. The Holy Infant and the Madonna have a central position in the scene, but there are many other figures as well; for example, it is acceptable to place a farmer’s wife cooking spaghetti next to the three Magi. The figures usually reflect the contemporary culture of Naples, but historic and international people also may be represented. In the local museum, you can see one of the largest Nativity creations which includes over 160 people and many animals, angels and miniature objects. You may recognize politicians, celebrities and at least one pickpocket.

A traditional nativity scene from Naples. Nativity Scene by thom, on Flickr.

Some people may find this inclusion of everyday figures in a religious tableau as inappropriate, but there is an important message in these overcrowded scenes. Let us not confine the birth of Jesus in a time and place two thousand years ago.  If we confine his nativity to a small vision, we may not see the universal relevance of the Christmas story. 

Jesus was born into the chaos of humanity. People were pouring into Bethlehem: Roman soldiers, merchants, farmers, slaves and probably pickpockets. Into this crowded town came poor shepherds on a quest to find a holy infant foretold by angels. People would hardly notice them, but people might notice three men in rich, exotic robes, travellers from a distant land, followers of an unfamiliar religion.

In our gospel narratives, we have the message that God sent Jesus into the world as it was, a world as fragmented and violent as our world today. Who might we place in our Nativity scenes now? Like the crowds in Bethlehem, we might include people hurrying to offices, merchants opening stores and restaurants, and weary hospital workers. Like the lonely shepherds, we might represent homeless people, migrants or refugees. Like the Magi, we might include strangers from exotic lands. Who would you place in your Nativity scene? Perhaps a loved one, an astronaut, an Olympic athlete?

As Christians we believe that Jesus was God in the world with a message of hope and love which transcends the diversity of human society. Because we are loved by God, we are called to care for God’s world and for God’s people. When the Magi arrive at the stable, the Nativity scene is not complete and never will be, because the message of Jesus Emmanuel is made new again in every generation which strives for justice, compassion and peace in this complex world of the twenty-first century.

The story of the star and the Magi ends with the Wise Men safely returning to their own country. We do not know, and it seems unlikely, that they abandoned their own religion to adopt the Hebrew faith. We might hope that they told others of their journey and encouraged respect among non-Jews for the Hebrew God. On January 6, we begin the season of Epiphany in our church year. It is the time when we explore the events in the life of Jesus as he begins his mission from God. Let us all begin this new year with hope. The more we search for God, the more we realize that God is sending us unusual signs to guide us.