(Photo credit: Ben White on Unsplash)

What’s missing from our nativity scenes?

By the Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner-Triplett

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
— Luke 2:6–7 (NIV)

For many Christians, the nativity scene is central to retelling the story of Christ’s birth.

Mary and Joseph — a poor, obscure and very pregnant young couple — are caught up in a government mandate that has everyone returning home to be counted in Caesar’s census. All of the inns and beds-and-breakfasts of their day are filled with travelers of greater means. As a result, the only space available to them is a stable. This first-time mother must make do with what is available to her. Necessity forces her to give birth in a space reserved for animals. Mary and Joseph elect to utilize a feeding trough for animals as a makeshift crib for Jesus.

During the holiday season, we see nativity scenes in many front yards, under Christmas trees and in places of worship. These beautiful nativities bear silent witness to the divinity of the Son of God — the One who came to earth to dwell among humanity.

As we lift up this integral message of Christianity, let us contemplate how sanitized these 21st-century nativity images have become. Keep in mind that, while they portray the story, they are powerless to represent the reality of the conditions surrounding Jesus’ birth. The prefabricated crèche animals are devoid of the smells, sounds and behaviors typical of farm animals. Our nativity-scene stables are well-illuminated, almost homey contrasts to what may have been a rather drafty, dark lean-to. In many cases, the rough-hewn manger has virtually disappeared from contemporary nativities, miraculously morphing into more aesthetically pleasing basketlike receptacles for Baby Jesus.

But the place where Christ chose to be born was stark and uncomfortable. The infant King of Kings passed his first hours of life sleeping in a hay-filled trench designed for feeding animals. The story of the birth of Christ fills us with amazement because God wraps up in human flesh and declines the trappings of human wealth and celebrity. Instead, Jesus opted for living a life that was well acquainted with the multifaceted challenges of poverty. He neither judged nor idealized the poor. He did not romanticize or fear economic poverty; he chose to embrace it and to thrive despite it. Jesus understood the complex nature of poverty because he lived among those who wrestled with its poisonous impact. His birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection provided antidotes of hope, dignity and healing.

Jesus offers us the model for actively loving and serving God and humanity. The circumstances of his birth debunk the myth that a person’s worth and value are based in riches and human power. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let’s keep in mind that Baby Jesus grew up and that he did so with an intimate understanding of the intricacies of power, poverty and prejudice. He grew up burdened by the reputation of a town so ill considered that the disciple Nathaniel wondered if anything good could come from it. He grew up amid whispers about the nature of his conception. His life, death and resurrection provided a resounding “yes” to Nathaniel’s question. His message catapulted him beyond the grasp of poverty, stereotypes and gossiping tongues.

This Christmas, let’s encourage and support the babies who are being born now in humble economic circumstances. Resident in each of them is the power to heal and transform someone and something in this world. Human value and potential are considered cheap and expendable only when weighed on the scales of materialism.

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn P. Turner-Triplett is director of Rizpah’s Children at American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.