Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Creche Revisited

Christmas creches, or manger scenes, are charming and useful reminders of the various events commonly associated with Christmas. The problem is, they really don't portray reality, nor some of the particular realities very well. Was that comment a bit cryptic? Let's go through the actual events represented in a creche, starting in Mary's 8th or 9th month of pregnancy.

Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, an OK place to live, except that Augustus ordered a census for the purposes of taxation. Every person was required to register at their ancestral home town. For Mary and for Joseph – both were descendants of David – that would have been Bethlehem, 60 or 70 miles from Nazareth. Today, that would be slightly more than an hour's drive on the Interstate (less, if your foot needs to go on a diet). For them, it would have been 2-4 day's journey by horse or donkey … except that Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy. Financially, it would have been quite a strain, as they were not rich. Probably they were living hand-to-mouth on what Joseph earned as a carpenter (where Nazareth's tininess would have made things difficult).

On arriving in Bethlehem, they ran into their next problem, finding a place to stay. They weren't the only ones who had come to Bethlehem for the census! Complicating this, well, babies don't just pop out after 5 minutes' labor. Labor can last 12 hours, 24 hours, even longer. Chances are, Joseph was searching for a place to stay under the urgency of knowing that Mary was in labor. The best Joseph could find was a stable. Now, this would not have been the rickety, drafty, open structure one commonly sees in a creche. Probably it would have been a cave, which would have offered reasonably good shelter, but wouldn't be very good as a decoration. On the other hand, their donkey would have been with them, so the donkey traditionally included in creches is realistic. That night, Mary delivered her baby. The manger in which Jesus was laid was more likely a stone feeding trough than the nice but rickety wooden structure. Stone was more durable and more plentiful. Why lay Him down at all? Well, Mary had some necessary cleaning up to do (another reason to be glad the stable wasn't a drafty open structure!). And, well, you try holding a 7-pound baby totally still for just an hour!

The shepherds came … contrary to a common belief, shepherds in Palestine can and do pasture their sheep in December. The winter climate there is relatively mild, aided in Jesus' time by the selfishness of rich Greeks and Romans driving Sport Utility Chariots drawn by high-powered, high methane output, horses. This caused global warming during the early Roman Empire period. Also, sheep have a curious habit of wearing wool coats. So the shepherds' pasturing their sheep is not a proof Jesus could not have been born in December. The text of Luke chapter 2 indicates that the angels announced Jesus' birth to the shepherds the night he was born, and that their visit was also that same night. On the other hand, it is not likely that they brought their sheep with them (for practical reasons), so the sheep commonly part of creches are likely more for cuteness than realism.

Then there's the “Wise Men” or the “Three Kings”. The text actually calls them, “Magi”, a Persian tribe known for its astrologer-astronomers (the distinction was less clear, then). Creches commonly include three Magi, with gifts and camels. The number of Magi is not actually known, but is based on the number of their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh (and the costliness of their gifts may be the origin of calling them kings). At any rate, something in their astronomical observations grabbed their attention and brought them from “the east” (probably from somewhere in the Parthian Empire, Rome's deadly enemy) to Judea. Why, isn't really explained, but they stopped off in Jerusalem, and were brought before Herod, where they explained their purpose and asked directions. Herod consulted the religious teachers in Jerusalem, and per their answers, sent the Magi on to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him what they found. The Magi's report of a newly born king set off Herod's paranoia, though he cloaked it from the Magi with pleasant platitudinal lies. So the Magi went on toward Bethlehem, and were guided to where Jesus was.

It is at this point that we see that there is a more basic problem with the traditional creche, namely that the Magi are part of a creche at all. Matthew 2:11 describes the arrival of the Magi … at the house in which Mary, Joseph and Jesus were living. The word used to describe Jesus could mean an infant or, more commonly, a slightly older child. But at any rate, some weeks or months had passed, the crowds in Bethlehem for the census dissipated, allowing Mary and Joseph to find a house. Speculating more than a little, it may be that Joseph had decided to start life over again in Bethlehem. By marrying the pregnant Mary, Joseph had essentially acknowledged that he was the father of Mary's baby, that they had had premarital sex. Thus, Joseph's social standing in Nazareth would have been rather poor. Or it may simply be that they decided to stay a few weeks in Bethlehem to allow Mary to recuperate from giving birth and to allow Jesus to mature a little before attempting the 60 or 70 mile journey to Nazareth. Whatever the reason for remaining in Bethlehem, a house is where the Magi found Jesus and His family, not a stable. But the Magi and their camels do look cool in a creche.

Incidentally, there is an incident, recorded in Luke 2 22-38, which would have occurred between Jesus' birth and the visit of the Magi. The Law of Moses required the the firstborn be presented to the God on the 8th day after being born. Mary and Joseph went to nearby Jerusalem and did this. I suppose Mary and Joseph did appreciate the census for having brought them near Jerusalem for this presentation rather than doing it nearer to Nazareth.

Immediately after the visit of the Magi, two things happened. First, God warned the Magi in a dream not to report to Herod where they had found Jesus. Second, God warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. Without digging too deeply into this example of the classic Problem of Pain argument, this means that God knew what Herod would do but did not directly act to prevent the Slaughter of the Innocents. God did act to withhold from Herod the information he needed to find Mary, Joseph and Jesus. This not only gave Jesus' family the time to escape, it also gave Herod time to mull over his choice: he could swallow his frustrated pride and do nothing; or he could lash out in a murderous rage. That God knew what Herod's choice would be does not mean Herod's choice was any less Herod's choosing.

We are close to the end of this shaggy pieced together narrative. The incident with the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents was near the end of Herod's life. Some months, or maybe a year or two, later Herod did die and God let Joseph know it was safe to return. With the death of Herod, Augustus had a choice. He could choose one of Herod's remaining sons to take Herod's place as king. For whatever reason, Augustus did not trust any of Herod's sons to rule Herod's entire territory. Instead, Augustus split the kingdom among them. Similarly, Joseph had a choice. He could try (again?) to settle in Bethlehem, or he could return to Nazareth, which he had left some years before, and try to pick up the pieces of his life there. Both territories were ruled by sons of Herod. Matthew does not explain why, but Joseph did not trust Archelaus, who ruled Judea. Consequently, Joseph took his family to Nazareth. But for an incident when Jesus was age 12 (Luke 2:41-52), the New Testament says nothing more of the happenings of Jesus' life until He started His public ministry, probably at age 30. So we will leave off this narrative where it started, in Nazareth.

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