The Nativity Scene

by Gracie Joo

Every year, my neighbors set up a light-up nativity scene display during Advent. In an upright position of warm yellow lights is the pentagon border of a barn embracing Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger. Their front yard is devoid of any other decorations– the nativity scene gets the full stage. 

My neighbors’ light-up nativity display is only one of many renditions of the nativity scene. Some of us have seen nativity figurine sets on top of fireplaces, others of us own nativity-themed ornaments. My personal favorite is when the children of my home church dress up in nativity-themed costumes (we even have a star costume!) for a skit. Some nativity displays only include Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, while others include shepherds, Magi, and the barn animals. Whether in figurine or light-up form, whether all characters are present, the nativity scene and its depiction of the first people to behold the promised Savior amplify that the gospel message is for all people.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that there were two distinct groups of people who were led to baby Jesus as his first worshippers: shepherds and Magi from the east. 

Luke 2:8 says that on the night of Jesus’ birth, “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Two things to note here: these shepherds were living out in the fields and they were tending the sheep at night on a night shift. One can assume from these details that shepherds were not a part of upper-class society. Instead of sharing the news with highly-respected teachers or priests, the angels chose to share the first “good news” of the Savior’s arrival to shepherds. Luke 2:10-11 says “The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”” In this way, lowly shepherds were written down in history as one of the first worshippers of Jesus, among the first to behold their Savior. Luke 2:17-18 further says that “when they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” Not only were the shepherds among the first worshippers of Christ, they were among the first to share the gospel as well. Jesus’s ministry of using the weak to lead the strong began from his birth. 

The angel declared that this good news will cause great joy for all people. And truly, this good news reached an unlikely group: Magi from the east. Matthew 2:1-2 tells us that “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”” Two observations to highlight here: Magi were wise men, meaning they were highly educated and intelligent people, often in positions of advising rulers. Secondly, these Magi were from the east, meaning they were Gentiles, not Jews. To the Jewish readers of Matthew who viewed Gentiles as “unclean” people, documenting the Magi as one of the first worshippers of Jesus was a striking image. The good news of Jesus’s birth was shared to Gentile wise men, a group effectively foil to the shepherds, in the form of a star. From the beginning, God made clear that the good news brought by the baby in a manger was for all people: Jew or Gentile, poor or rich, educated or not. 

What is this good news? The Magi’s gifts for baby Jesus point to the answer. Matthew 2:11 says “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” 

By gifting gold, symbolizing wealth and royalty throughout the Old Testament, the wise men were declaring that they acknowledged Jesus as a king. Gold also covered the walls of the inner sanctuary of the Old Testament temple, where priests would encounter the presence of God. Gold symbolized not only Jesus’s kingship but also the incarnation of baby Jesus– God’s presence in human form.

Frankincense was burned as incense and was culturally associated with ceremonial worship of deities. In this way, the Magi acknowledged that the baby was not only King but also God. According to Exodus 30:34, an incense mixture including “pure frankincense” was needed to make sacrifices at the altar of the Old Testament temple. Frankincense symbolized that Jesus, both King and God, would be a pure and holy offering to the Lord for the propitiation of sins. Finally, the gift of myrrh was often used as a key ingredient in the mixture of spices used to prepare bodies for burial. Myrrh symbolized that the Savior of the world would save his people in an unlikely way– by dying for them.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that the God of the universe kept His promise. He did not leave the world to remain under the rule of sin and brokenness. Although humans chose the chance to be like God rather than spend eternity with him (Genesis 3:5), God chose to come to the earth in the humble form of an infant for a chance to spend eternity with us. He came as a baby to grow up, experience this world in all of its pain, and defeat sin and death for all by dying on the cross for our sins and raising from the dead. Because of the gift of Jesus’ arrival, death, and resurrection, we no longer need to sacrifice animals in the temple. We ourselves can enter the presence of God freely. We can walk with the Lord in every moment of our lives as His spirit resides in us. We can intimately know the Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. This good news is for all people regardless of ethnicity, social class, or any other divisive and restricting label of this world.
The love and salvation of Jesus Christ is for all people– He came here for you.

Gracie Joo is a Master’s student at Duke University studying public policy.

This article is part of the Duke Crux X UVA Bearings 2021 Advent Series, a collaboration between the two Augustine Collective Organizations.

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