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Christmas Unwrapped: The Story of the Nativity

Outside of the Christmas Tree adorned with a star at the top, the second most common symbol of the religious holiday of Christmas is the nativity. The tiny manger crib, the loving gaze of parents, the assemblage of animals and angels, the shepherds with their crooks looking in, and the three magi bearing expensive gifts all invoke a specific mood. It is a reminder of the narrative of the beginning of the Christian church coming straight from the year 1223, or over 1200 years after the birth it is supposed to represent. The nativity is not a reflection of any historical or biblical truth, but instead was a creation of St. Francis of Assisi to artistically represent theological beliefs held in the Middle Ages in Europe. The birth narratives told in the Bible books of Matthew and Luke were mixed with other beliefs about the birth of Jesus and these mythologies play heavily into the nativities that decorate so many Christian homes today. Francis of Assisi lived over two hundred years before Martin Luther would start the protestant reformation. European Christianity was divided between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Even the most devout believers did not read the Bible – they relied on others to define and interpret the texts for them. This led to the heavy use of icons and iconography to represent the stories told from the Bible.

Above - typical western Nativity with Mary as the only woman, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as white/European.

The word icon in English comes from the similar looking and sounding Greek word ikon. Not to be confused with the camera brand Nikon, which comes from a Japanese word (Nikkō - 日光) which means sunlight, the word ikon simply means image. In the Christian religious tradition, an icon was any picture or image of Christ used as an object of devotion.

The year 1223 was also during the Crusades, which happened between 1095 and 1291. Pope Urban II first ordered the military campaigns which sent European Christians to wrestle control of Jerusalem and other early shrines of the Christian faith which were associated with the life and ministry of Jesus. The promise of full absolution of sin and eternal glory led many European men to help build a series of castles and armaments along the Mediterranean coast and to lay siege to Muslim towns.

After a brutal siege brought Jerusalem into the control of the Pope, the Muslim artists and metal workers began to make and export Christian icons for European markets. It was around this time that the first nativity was created, by a monk in a small Italian village in the Perugian Province. While it depicted the birth of Jesus, it and other icons were primarily created to show the divinely ordained right of the Catholic church to take over the world in the name of Jesus. Colonialism and the belief in Manifest Destiny would all eventually spring from the well of the Crusades. Before the Crusades, most wars were fought in areas close to the home of those fighting. Only after the Crusades did European nobility leave their homes to go convert other lands and claim the wealth found for their Pope-blessed rulers.

Ibn Jubayr, a Muslim man born in Spain noted that the Crusades and the war between Christian and Muslim soldiers was limited to those fighting. “The soldiers engage themselves in their war, while the people are at peace.” [1] Many of the icons were designed to bring emphasis on the power and right of the Catholic church to use the tools of war even as they fought for a religion that emphasized peace and love for one another. In a war between sacred beliefs and ideas, claiming that any who are not converted to Christianity will burn and suffer for eternity was expected to bring an end to any resistance to the Catholic church around the Mediterranean and eventually around the world. The Bible we know today was not the full collection of manuscripts and writing about Jesus, his birth, his family, or his ministry. In fact, church leaders determined which books and testimonies they would use to build this new religion and discarded the rest, but in 1223, many of those other discarded texts were still known and studied. St. Francis used some of that scripture to design the nativity scene we still see today.

The image to the side is one of communal support and protection of young single mothers with babies. Helping hands and assistance of family and society for moms with children.

The writers of the books and texts that became known as the New Testament were mostly Jewish by birth and tradition. Even today, there are discrepancies between different Christian traditions regarding which books of scripture were ordained (blessed) by God and which were discarded as the writings of men. The Tewahedo Church that grew from the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch recognizes 81 books. The Roman Catholic Church believes that 73 books should be included, and Protestants only believe that 66 are reflective of the living and true word of God.

The time Jesus lived was also the time that Great Assembly or Great Synagogue was happening with 120 Jewish scribes and prophets who determined the Oral Torah and the establishment of the Jewish canon. The Great Assembly ended in 72 a.d. which means that it was still happening when many believe the first Christian or New Testament texts were compiled by the followers of Jesus. Certain Jewish groups did not believe in the work of the Great Assembly and today still reject part of the Jewish canon. This means that unlike the beliefs of many modern Christians, the texts and beliefs of the church changed over time and across traditions and location. Reclaiming the willingness of our faithful predecessors to keep seeking new truth and new knowledge is something that would be of great benefit to many modern churches that get caught up in only seeing one way and one path to a relationship with the divine.

Many of those books and beliefs are not part of the official protestant canon have influenced the faith and belief of modern Christians. For example, the Protoevangelium of James was very well-known and popular at the time St. Francis was working in Assisi. It adds to the story of Jesus’s birth with the story of the birth of his mother Mary and his families flight and life in Europe to escape King Herod. It was later translated as the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Some of the images of the Magi or Eastern holy men come from those books through the work of medieval icons. The Nativity was never meant to be the definitive depiction of the birth of Jesus, and it has removed women and made that moment one with a single young girl surrounded by men. It is a symbol to bring us into closer relationship with the teachings of a Jewish man in the Middle East, and one of the best ways to honor the teaching of Jesus is to bring women back to the images we use. Women walked and were welcomed as part of the community of Jesus, making their place at his birth important and meaningful. The shepherds may have followed a star and kept watch by night in those first few days, but only after the women who delivered Jesus had left and niddah had ended. Niddah is a time when Jewish men are forbidden from looking upon their wives or being present at the birth, and it lasts from the moment labor begins until seven (for boys) to fourteen (for girls) days later. The magi arrived two or three years later. In those first days after a poor Jewish girl gave birth, it would have been the women that attended her and the child she birthed.

Neither of the books in the Bible that relate Jesus’s arrival speak of his actual birth. Luke simply claims he is born and picks up the story after that event. The Protoevangelium of James tells the story of his birth, assisted by two midwives. The midwives were a part of the Nativity through the medieval period and were removed – first because the roles of women are often left out of history, then as midwives across Europe were accused of witchcraft, and finally because birth was outside of Victorian prudish sensibilities.

Jewish midwives were more than just attendants at birth, and like other Indigenous female healers provided for the health and wellness of their communities. In North America, the craft of midwifery was revived through the arrival of enslaved women healers from Africa.

In the early 20th century in the United States, the act of giving birth as a communal activity of women was stripped away, as women began using for Twilight Sleep, an amnesiac medication practice used in hospitals which allowed the women to avoid the pain and wake up with no memory and a new baby. Male doctors attended to the mothers and the fathers had no place in delivery rooms - partially because of the belief that men who witnessed a woman delivering a baby could never again feel sexual attraction to the mother. Queen Elizabeth II of England helped change this practice when her husband attended the arrival of her fourth and final child in 1964. Other women began asking for their own partners to be with them, but it took some time before doctors or hospitals would allow it. My mother-in-law had to change doctors and drive over an hour to find a doctor that would allow her husband to be with her in 1971, but by 1974 things had changed and she had no problems. It is time to strip away the patriarchal beliefs that removed the story of women and midwives from attending to Mary as she gave birth to her oldest child, and to add midwives into the nativity icons. Women were there when Jesus was born and women were there when he died to wash and care for his wounded body. Their presence reminds us that women are an integral part of life, not one to be forgotten or stripped from it.

Eastern Orthadox traditions not only include the holy midwife, but give her a name - Salome. She is included as a witness in the back of the icons made in Byzantine like the ones below.

Top - Salome shown holding the lamb to signify her role in delivering Jesus. Bottom - Salome and her assistant bathing Jesus.

A Nativity can be a beautiful part of our Christmas traditions. Many people have elaborate scenes that have been handed down generation to generation. Knowing the truth behind its origin does not prohibit space for a new truth to emerge in how we envision the birth of Jesus. Women, quietly working – quietly hoping – quietly loving. Through their actions and their work, we can see the true meaning of Christmas and we can connect to the divine beloved among us and within us. In her 2018 Christmas sermon about the nativity and the midwife Salome, the Reverend Carrie Ballenger Smith had this to say.

What do you suppose life was like for Mary’s midwife Salome after the holy night when not only she, but the whole world, was changed forever? Did she continue to catch other babies? Did she become a preacher and teacher of the Gospel? What is life possibly like after you’ve stood near the manger, held the hand of Our Lord’s mother, and perhaps even given the Messiah his first bath?

Surely, hands which have held the Savior of the world will be active in caring for the vulnerable and the voiceless, building a just society based on dignity for all people.

Ears which have heard the Messiah’s first cry will be specially tuned to the cries of the poor and the refugee, the oppressed and the occupied.

Eyes which have seen the infant face of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will surely look upon neighbors, strangers, and even enemies as children of God worthy of love and mercy.

And a voice which has said with tenderness and joy, “Welcome to the world, little Child; welcome to the world, my Lord and Savior” will surely be lifted again, speaking against every form of injustice, prejudice, and hatred.

Women, quietly working – quietly hoping – quietly loving. Through their actions and their work, we can see the true meaning of Christmas and we can connect to the divine beloved among us and within us. When we restore the midwife to our midrash of the birth of Jesus, we restore the true meaning of Jesus's birth and the day we celebrate - hope for a better world where all people can live, love, and thrive.

Christmas is understood best as the celebration of love.

Here are just a few other images of the nativity that can speak of deeper truths and the deep love and witness demonstrated in the love-led ministry of Jesus.

John Guiliani, Mary Gives Birth to Jesus, 1999. From The Crow Series. The image below is the same artist depicting a Guatemalan nativity.

An Indian Batik image from P. Solomon Raj called Nativity

Hanna Varghese, God Is With Us from Malaysia

from the Congo, Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, Nativity

Bonding time: the Nativity in Townsville by Jan Hynes.

Holy Family of the Streets by Kelly Latimore

The Holy Family by Filipino artist, Emmanuel Garibay

José y Maria, comic art by Everett Patterson

Holy family, also by Kelly Latimore

May we each learn to follow the lessons imagined of Salome and feel, see, hear, and love each other in the way the midwife loved and brought comfort to the mother she helped that imagined long ago night in Bethlehem.

P.S. A note about the stable. We too often see a barn-like structure that would be more common in the American west than a village in the Middle East. Most houses at the time Jesus were born had an enclosed lower level where animals were penned up at night to keep them safe from poachers or animal predators. The people lived above, which also meant they could benefit from the warmth the animals produced as it rose. If not, the most common stable was a cave carved in a hillside. The wooden stable is just another part of the myth represented in the icon.

[1] Paul, Nicholas, and Suzanne Yeager, eds. Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image, and Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

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