The Sunday School nativity is one of the great traditions of Christmas. Dish out a few carboard crowns and tea towels, find some white tunics and tinsel, then get the children to act out the events of Christmas. But how accurate are our nativity plays and how much do they rely on tradition rather than the Bible?
It’s well known that the number of wise men were not specified and that there’s nothing to suggest that they were kings either. There’s also some dispute as to whether or not they would have turned up at the same time as the Shepherds. I wouldn’t get too worried about that though. You are after all, squeezing a lot of activity into a stylised telling of the story, all to create a fantastic montage at the end.
Furthermore, whilst there is nothing to say that the wise-men did arrive at roughly the same time as shepherds, there’s nothing to say that they didn’t either. The suggestion of a time gap relies on two things. First of all, that Herod decided based on the first sighting of the star to kill all the boys under the age of two. Incidentally, this would not have been a huge massacre as the town was fairly small in those days. Whilst setting the age at two and under might have suggested some passage of time, it is also possible that Herod was simply hedging his bets on the safe side.
The other reason why people think the wise men came later is that Matthew describes the family as being in a house rather than a stable. However, this is based on something that definitely has crept in from outside Scripture. Our nativity plays usually have Mary and Joseph trying their look at various hotel like inn doors and being turned away until one kind innkeeper takes pity on them and gives them a place in his stable.
However, there’s no mention of stables or innkeepers, which is disappointing for those of us who were typecast in that role over the years and even more concerning for those who have built countless sermon applications around the theme of “no room in the inn.” The word usually translated “inn”, may just as probably refer to a guest room in the family home, perhaps an upper room like the one Jesus used for his last supper. The main house would have been a single room, possibly with a raised platform for humans and then an area where the animals would have been brought in at night.
On this basis, it is extremely possible that Jesus wasn’t born in a forgotten stable away from everyone. This might not suit our Gospel sermons. However, there is perhaps a richer application here. We find Jesus born right at the heart of family life, in the midst of its mess and chaos. Right where he should be. Right where we need him today.