As the Christmas Nativity Scene is viewed by millions around the world each year, I would dare say that most view the elements and characters and assume this is the accurate depiction of the actual events. Most prefer not to compare what is viewed in the scene with what the Scripture says. The normal scene shows Mary and Joseph in a wooden stable, farm animals, shepherds, angels and the Magi, all as a company of visitors, adoring the baby Jesus.
The first nativity scene was apparently constructed by Saint Francis of Assisi in A.D. 1223. It seems to be his intent, not necessarily to portray historical or literary accuracy, but more the conveyance of theological truths by the scene. He was harmonizing the two different stories of the event from Luke chapter 2 and Matthew chapter 2 into one scene, including all the players as the story unfolded.
No animals are mentioned in the narrative, but the fair and obvious assumption, of course is, since we have a manger, we must have animals. But in the case of the wooden stable, the early portrayals of the scene agree that the manger was in a cave, not a wooden structure. O well, it’s ok. Over the centuries things have been added, embellished and expanded. We look at the manger scene and we know what it means and we are glad to see it arrive each year with all the trappings of Christmas.
But the shadowy figures from the east remain an enigma that is still pondered today. We aren’t told a great deal about them in the Bible, only the general area they came from, their intentions, their gifts, how they were guided and how they were protected by God as they exited this story. They have been referred to as kings in music and lore. “We three kings of Orient are…” seems to fit better musically and rhythmically than “We three wise men of Orient are…” But the text says they were magi or wise men. “Magi” comes from a Persian word meaning men that were expert in the study of the stars.
We aren’t told how many magi there were. There were at least two, because the word magi is plural. The early Apocryphal writings attempt to answer this question, but not so well. One account says there were two magi; most have three in their writings. There are some that say there were numerous magi. A few put the number at twelve. The Armenian Infancy Gospel, from the second century, claims that there were three kings, each accompanied by twelve commanders with armies of one thousand men each. A very large stable indeed would be needed for this troop to gather around!
Images from inscriptions and sarcophaguses show the magi, each from a different part of the world, showing that the message of the nativity scene is for everyone. One fourth century sarcophagus shows Jesus raising the dead on one end and the magi pointing to the star and worshiping the baby Jesus on the other. This was a frequent appearance in the funeral setting, depicting the message of eternal life through the resurrection.
Many of these writings have expanded the story of these magi and supplied them with names and tell what happened when they returned home. Their names became Melchior, Baldassar and Gaspar with some variation form culture to culture. In 490 A.D., the Byzantine emperor Zeno claimed to have discovered their remains, which were moved to Constantinople and are enshrined today in Cologne, Germany.
The magi are said to have taken artifacts back home, such as a swaddling band from Jesus’ manger. This was claimed to have healing powers. In the Legend of Aphroditianus, it is told that the magi returned with a painting of Jesus and his mother.
And to the purist among us, the magi were certainly not at the manger, the night of Jesus’ birth. They would have arrived many months later. The Biblical narrative says they entered the “house” and saw the “young child,” not “manger” or “baby” as the shepherds saw. But I don’t mind if the magi are included in our manger scenes. They are part of the story and they depict a truth that we need to know – they made their way to Him and they worshiped Him. And, as the song says, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.”
I like what Tony Burke says in a Bible History Daily article, “The Christmas nativity scene is the outcome of efforts by creative and pious writers to fill in blanks left by Matthew and Luke and to combine multiple traditions, Biblical and non-Biblical, into one enduring image. The nativity scene is a timeless representation of when God became man; it is also a testament to human imagination and the art of storytelling.”
So, I encourage all of us to enjoy our manger scenes, wooden stable, magi and all the rest this Christmas and be thankful that this timeless representation has been preserved and has been a strength and point of hope and grace for this undeserving human race.