In our house, we have a small nativity scene. The figurines are made of bisque and are painted in soft pastels. Everyone looks perfect--Mary, hands slightly raised. Joseph, attentively leaning in. The wise men--lined up as three sumptuously dressed kings bearing gifts. A shepherd boy, sheep slung over his shoulder. A sheep turns to look at a baby in a manger, while a donkey waits patiently.
This scene is so familiar to those of us who celebrate Christmas.
I would venture to say that few of us stop to think--wait. They couldn't all be there at once. What we have done with our imagined Christmas scene is place all the participants in one space at one time.
A number of years ago, I read a marvelous book by the Catholic theologian Raymond Brown, entitled The Birth of The Messiah. He explained as lucidly as anything I have ever read WHY the various aspects of the birth story were included by the Gospel writers.
Stop to consider for a moment several things about the birth of Jesus stories. First, only Matthew and Luke tell us anything about his birth. Mark is too rushed, plunging headlong into the "good news" account that he completely omits any reference to the birth. John is too poetic to deal with mundane details liking someone being born. So, it is up to the writers of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke to tell us any birth stories.
Second, these accounts were written long after the events of Jesus' life. One implication of that timing is that it is unlikely that these stories were to be considered eyewitness accounts, as we might think today of a newspaper story. They were written by writers living within early church communities, and they were intended to appeal to that community. The symbolism selected for inclusion in the story had a very specific purpose. So, for example, Matthew's gospel emphasizes the Jewish tradition. Luke was written by someone attuned to Gentile sensibilities. It is Matthew who tells of the wise men; Luke tells of the shepherds. Neither gospel tells of both simultaneously. So, the combined crowded manger scene is a convenience we have constructed.
Third, Brown argues that the gathering of materials that formed all the gospels likely followed this sequence. Immediately after Jesus' death, which would have been a stunningly catastrophic event for those who witnessed it first-hand, his followers would have recalled his death. So the death stories were the first to be gathered. Then, his followers would have recalled events from Jesus' life and ministry. You can almost hear them saying--remember when he . . . So the works and words were gathered next. Finally, as their understanding grew, they would have asked--was not this Messiah known from the moment of his birth. Was his birth not marked by special events. And so, they gathered the birth stories, emphasizing NOT eye-witness history, but emphasizing all the important signs and symbols that said--this is the Messiah.
In some ways, we have corrupted these marvelous accounts. By lumping them all together, we lose the singularity of a baby being born; of an unmarried young woman--a teen--discovering she is pregnant; of an honorable older man defying convention and deciding to marry his pregnant (by someone else) fiance anyway; of wise men from other countries, studying religion and seeking in the stars some sign marking a new revelation; of shepherds who were tending their flocks at night, simple folk engaged in an age-old occupation.
We have even added some of our own symbolism, that has formed part of our vision of the Bethlehem scene. We imagine snow on the ground, and a hard cold night. The image in our mind's eye is more attuned to the visions implanted by Charles Dickens and his wonderful evocative A Christmas Carol than of first century dusty Palestine.
As someone who loves to write, I can really appreciate the skill of telling a story--and a good one at that. A story can convey the truth, without every detail having to be true.