One of the most familiar and ubiquitous things you’ll see at Christmas time is the Nativity scene. It’s a tableau that presents a moment in time of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It shows Joseph, Mary, shepherds, ‘three kings,’ and some animals gathered around the baby Jesus in a stable. In some tableaus, there are also angels hovering above the stable and a big star shining upon it.
In the Philippines, the term we use for this nativity scene is ‘belen.’
Although the ‘belen’ is quite a scene to behold and the persons depicted there are part of the Christmas story, there are certain elements there that don’t quite align with what Scripture says. Here are some of them:
1. Not all of the characters in the ‘belen’ were around at the same place on the night Jesus was born. The only persons that we can be sure were there that night were Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus Himself. The shepherds also went there (Luke 2:16) after an angel told them that ‘today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’ (Luke 2:11).
However, the ‘three kings’ that are also present in the scene were not actually there on that night. First off, they were not ‘kings’ but were called ‘wise men‘ (also called ‘magis’) in the Bible. ‘Magis‘ are wise men, which means they could have been astrologers, astronomers, or scientists. Secondly, the Bible doesn’t mention if there were three, so there could have been more. It was only assumed that there were three because of the three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – that were presented to Jesus. Also, since the wise men were mentioned to be from ‘the East’ (Matt. 2:1), they would have traveled between 800 to 900 miles to see the child Jesus. Given the mode of transportation in those days, which would have been by riding camels, there’s no way they could have reached the place where Jesus was born on that fateful night of His birth. Matthew 2:7 also mentions Herod secretly calling them to determine from them ‘the exact time the star appeared’ (this ‘star’ was mentioned in verse 2 of the same chapter). Traveling around 900 miles and having to stop to see Herod would have made it impossible for them to reach the place where Jesus was born on the very same night of his birth. Matthew 2:11 says they went ‘into the house’ and ‘saw the child with Mary his mother’ (the verse only mentions Mary and the child Jesus and nobody else). There’s also a tradition that says the names of these wise men were Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Yet, we can’t find any of these names anywhere in Scripture to refer to these wise men.
Were there angels hovering above the place where Jesus was born? Again, the Bible doesn’t mention that. Angels, as far as the Christmas story is concerned, are only mentioned in Luke 2:9-15.
2. The Bible also doesn’t mention if the baby Jesus was born in a stable. It only says they couldn’t find a room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7). It then mentions Mary laying the child in a manger (a container from which cattle or horses feed), but we can’t say for sure that they were in a stable during Jesus’ birth.
3. Was there a huge star shining upon the place where the baby Jesus was born? As far as the Christmas story goes, ‘his star’ is mentioned in Matt. 2:2 which guided the wise men to where the ‘King of the Jews’ was. They see the same star again resting ‘over the place where the child was’ (verse 9), and not necessarily where Jesus was born.
4. Finally, we can’t be sure if there were animals with the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus during His birth. Since there’s no mention of a stable, we can’t be certain if there were indeed animals there with them. But since a ‘manger’ is mentioned, we can only assume that there were.
Given all that the Scripture either explicitly tells us or is silent about, we can know who and what were actually there on that ‘beautiful, scandalous night.’ This doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop putting up ‘belens’ in our homes, offices, and just about everywhere. What’s important is we stay true to what the Bible says should we decide to put up that beautiful tableau that presents the Christmas story – the story of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
May we keep our focus on the real message of the Christmas story, and that is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for a sinful people.
Have a Spirit-filled and Christ-centered Christmas celebration!