I am as guilty as the next person. At this time of year, I love to decorate the house for Christmas, and one of the prized possessions on display is a lovely Nativity set.
Each year, I try to arrange the pieces in as natural a looking scene as possible. And yet...and yet, deep down I know that I am not getting the details right.
Why? Because it simply didn't happen this way. How can I say something so outrageous, especially at this time of year. Because--I will tell you why.
When I was in college, I took a wonderful course in the Gospels from one of my all time favorite professors. He taught us to read each Gospel carefully and in its own right. When you do that, you will come to understand that each Gospel was written by a particular author for a particular purpose. So, the details the writer was selecting were intended to deliver a very specific message.
So, the writers of Mark and John simply skip the Christmas story. That's right. Not one mention in either Gospel of any of the details we associate with this time of year.
That leaves Matthew and Luke. What have we done with their accounts? Well, we have mashed them together into one grand scheme, rather like a Hollywood production. Cue the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary what is to come (Luke). Cue Joseph planning to break the engagement because Mary is pregnant (Matthew).Cue Caesar Augustus sending out a decree to have "all the world registered" (Luke). Cue Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem where she gives birth and places the baby in a manger (Luke).
So, who tells us about the shepherds? (Luke)
The angels singing? (Luke)
How about the wise men visiting? (Matthew)
And what of Joseph and Mary journeying to Egypt because Herod plans to kill all the baby boys? (Matthew)
Do you begin to see the issue? We have taken two separate accounts that do NOT duplicate details and have made of them one story. And that story gives rise to the nativity scene.
So no where in the Gospel accounts do we ever have a grand scene with everyone coming to the stable. And what about that stable? Who tells us about that? No one. That too has been part of the presumption. The brief cryptic statement in Luke's gospel is that the baby was laid in a manger "because there was no room in the inn." Of course, our presumption is that an inn must have been like a motel, sort of the Bethlehem Marriott or some such. One writer, however, suggests that what the statement may be referring to is that there was no room in the guest room. Not quite as picturesque, is it?
In the process we tend to lose the reason that the account in Matthew focused on details such as the visit by the wise men. And, where did the THREE wise men detail come from? Again, no where--except that there are three gifts mentioned.
We also lose the reason that the account from Luke focused on lowly shepherds.
Oh, I will keep my nativity. But I won't assume that the story that is being told is one grand continuous uninterrupted narrative. Because it isn't.