Summary: Christmas Eve sermon; Develops the spiritual impact of the first Nativity by comparing the oldest nativity scene with a modern nativity scene.
Away in a manger
The gospel lesson for the Feast of the Nativity shows us a scene that has become immortalized in Christian culture over the past 2,000 years. the nativity scene. Jesus is there in a manger, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds. And, though the three Kings did not arrive for several weeks – perhaps even several months – later, the traditional nativity scene usually includes them as well, bearing their gifts.
I think that most of us have these nativity scenes in our homes during this season. I know there have been a success of them in our house each Christmas since Barbara and I were married. The popularity of these home displays is usually traced back to St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century. During a Christmas celebration he presided over one year, he created a kind of living portrait of what we see in the gospels, and later, he taught lay people to fashion small, crude versions of what he had produced with living persons, and to display them in their homes during the Christmas season.
After the Reformation, when Protestant sentiment in many quarters turned decidedly iconoclastic, the practice of displaying nativity scenes was championed and promoted by Roman Catholic bishops as a kind of “in your face” act of piety intended to refute the Puritan currents that were running through some parts of Protestantism. Those currents reached their peak with the English Puritans who not only banished nativity scenes, they banned Christmas itself along with every feature of it, such as feasting, Christmas trees, or even a holiday from work. There are many things for which the Puritans may be admired, but their iconoclasm and Bah-Humbug ideas about Christmas are not one of them. It is a sign of spiritual balance and health that Protestants generally have in our day recovered many of the classical Western practices of observing the anniversary of our Lord’s birth.
It is usually thought that the earliest Nativity scene – in the sense of a artistic representation of it – is found during the Fourth Century in a Christian tomb decorated with a mural of the Baby Jesus lying in a manger. Prior to Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, Christians were not given so much to creating murals or statues, or any other pictorial representation of Jesus or Bible scenes, because these would invariably lead anti-Christian Roman authorities to persecute those who created such things.
But, the Roman hostility toward Christianity – and any artistic representation of it – was confined to the Roman jurisdiction. Beyond that, we may suppose, the hostility toward Christian might easily have permitted even earlier representations of pivotal scenes from the Christian faith, and among these the Nativity is surely one we would expect to appear where it was possible for Christians to create such pictures.
Today, the earliest known example of a nativity scene is now dated from the year 86 A.D. and it appears on a stone tablet – one of ten which were carved to decorate the tomb of an ancient aristocrat which was excavated in the year 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or "Terrace of Nine Women," in suburban Xuzhou, China. Many similar stone tablets have been excavated from that area as far back as 1954. From the beginning of the discovery of these tombs, art historians within China believed that the stone carvings portray scenes from the lives of the occupants of the tombs.
But, the significance of many of these tomb carvings changed dramatically three years ago, when they were viewed for the first time by Dr. Wang Witan, a 78-year-old Chinese scholar of early Christian history in China. He was particular struck by ten stone tablets that decorated a single tomb.
According to a story appearing in the December 22 edition of the China Daily, various decorative elements on these ancient tablets display the artistic style of early Christian artifacts found in Iraq and Middle East area while also bearing the characteristics of decoration during China’s Eastern Han dynasty which dates from the year 20 A.D. until 225 A.D. (http://www2.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-12/22/content_505587.htm).
"Some have decorative designs of the Arabic number 8, formed by two rare animals crossing their necks. They were almost the same as designs on Uruk oval seals found in the Euphrates River and Tigris River valleys in the Middle East," he said.
But Dr. Wang’s greatest surprise came when he surveyed the ten stones in the order they appear on the tomb. Let me read you from the China Daily report:
“ ‘The Bible stories were told on the stones in a kind of time sequence,’ [Dr. Wang] said.
“ ‘One of the reliefs showed the sun, the moon, living creatures in the seas, birds of heaven, wild animals and reptiles - images that Wang linked to the Creation story in Genesis. Another one depicted a woman taking fruit from ’the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ and a snake biting her right sleeve,’ Wang said. ‘It also included the angel sent by God to guard the tree. That’s similar to the ’Eve Tricked by the Serpent’ story in the Bible.’