Several years ago, reports surfaced of an American megachurch that splashed $90,000 on a life-sized nativity scene. I’m not sure of all that that nativity scene included, but if it’s like most others, it probably included Mary and Joseph, with baby Jesus, surrounded by shepherds, wise men, various animals, and a star over the stable. It might even have included a host of angels lighting up the sky, singing praises to God.
Most nativity scenes are an amalgamation of Matthew and Luke’s respective birth narratives, though closer inspection reveals that events didn’t happen quite as modern nativity scenes like to paint them.
Luke’s narrative focuses on the actual birth of Jesus. The host of angels lighting up the skies actually takes place in the field where the shepherds are tending their flocks. By the time we reach the actual encounter at the manger, the only characters in the scene are Jesus, his parents, and the shepherds. There is no mention of angelic skies or even a star over the stable. It’s a very ordinary scene.
Matthew’s narrative, on the other hand, focuses on another event entirely. Matthew simply states that Mary gave birth to a Son, whom Joseph named Jesus. The encounter with the wise men actually takes place “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (2:1). In fact, it was some time after the birth, since Jesus was no longer a baby but a child (2:8, 11). By this time, Jesus and his parents were in a house (2:11). It is in this narrative that the Bethlehem star is mentioned (2:2).
If we properly compare the two narratives, then, we can conclude that a more accurate nativity scene would exclude wise men, angels, and the star. Technically, it might also exclude animals, which are not mentioned in the birth narrative, though it might be argued that they can be assumed based on the presence of a manger.
Regardless, the point is simply that the birth of Jesus was far more ordinary than we have come to imagine. Christmas was far less elaborate than we make it out to be. There was nothing spectacular about the scene around the manger. The only witnesses to the event were a group of despised shepherds. It was a scene of what Skye Jethani calls “ordinary glory.” “Although we like to emphasize the sensational and revel in the grandeur of Christmas, we must not forget the true glory of this day is found in its ordinariness.”
The glory of Christmas is seen not in bright lights, angelic singing, fancy gifts but in the quite ordinary and humble birth of a baby boy. John’s birth narrative captures it nicely: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Ordinariness, in fact, characterised Jesus life and ministry. People found it difficult to believe that he was the Messiah precisely because he looked and lived so ordinary. But the ordinariness of his birth, life, and ministry concealed a spectacular glory: “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The world in which we live makes a big deal about Christmas: flashy decorations, extraordinary meals, loud music, etc. As Christians, let us remember to look beneath the flashy surface to see the true glory of Christmas in the quite ordinary birth of God in the flesh. Worship him today in the splendour or ordinariness. Merry Christmas!