Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shepherds, Wise Men and Creative Anachronism

One of my hard and fast rules when it comes to teaching children about the Bible is that I never want to teach them something that I will have to un-teach them later.

For example, when teaching my son about the early stories from the Book of Genesis, I never have led him to believe that they are literal stories of the creation or the flood. We talk about folk stories and how ancient people described God and the earth through beautiful acts of storytelling and creativity. It is my hope that there will never be a day when he asks me if Adam and Eve had belly buttons, who their children married if they were the first people, or even how Noah kept the carnivores from eating the small furry animals on the Ark. At least that is my hope.

The only exception that I ever make to this rule comes once a year on December 24 when we bring together an assortment of little children to create a “live” nativity as a part of our Lessons and Carols candlelit service. We have a Mary, a Joseph, a donkey, a variety of angels and sheep, two or three shepherds and three wise “people.”  As their designated scripture lesson is read or their iconic carol is sung, they walk group by group down the aisle of the sanctuary and find their place of adoration kneeling before the infant Jesus in our make shift manger.

Every year the shepherds walk up and take their place to the left followed by magi who kneel and stand to the right creating a scene that appears nowhere in the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Not too many people pay close enough attention to the different versions the Gospels offer of the stories of Jesus’ birth to understand that the story of the Adoration of the Shepherds is only found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:8-20) and the story of the Adoration of the Magi is only in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1-11). Scholars can give you different reasons that Matthew and Luke tell this story in such different ways and even different theories on the origins of these infancy narratives. Children aren’t all that interested in that level of biblical scholarship.

We create this anachronistic diorama when setting up our nativity scenes in our homes as well. At least most of us do. Interestingly, the African crèche that we put up on our mantel only came with wise men, so we often joke about our Matthean nativity scene. (not really a funny joke but a typical one in our house.)

My husband, who grew up in the home of a biblical scholar, remembers being told by his parents in the course of learning about the stories of Christmas that the shepherds and the wise men never visited the baby Jesus at the same time. They knew early on that the wise men came to visit much later after Jesus has grown a little older and long after the shepherds had returned to their flocks. He remembers setting up the nativity scene with his brother and intentionally placing the wise men in a different part of the room signifying their ongoing journey to reach the holy family at a much later date. (Chances are they also told Bible jokes in their home as well.)

So why am I willing to break my own rule when it comes to the Nativity and these adoring visitors? There are a few reasons.

First, I love the fact that the story of the nativity is the only story of the Bible that we consistently give children in toys to allow them play it out. By setting up the scene over and over again they can retell the story in their own words using these figures and scenery to make the story of Jesus’ birth part of their psyche and their holiday tradition. I am not going to fuss with that.

Second, there is a value that also comes with surprising students with a new understanding of the Bible as they get older and begin to really read it for themselves. Pointing out to teenagers that the image that they have had for so long of the Christmas story is not exactly right, makes them start to wonder what else they might not know or understand in the Bible…maybe they need to start reading it for themselves just to make sure there is nothing else that has been misrepresented to them. It is a perfect illustration for Confirmation students introducing them to the idea that each Gospel tells a unique and different story of Jesus’ birth, life and death. I just can’t help but enjoy it when I get to blow a teenager’s mind.

Finally there is this…my absolute favorite Christmas picture of my son, preparing to make his debut on Christmas Eve as a magi and his best friend eager to step into the role of adoring shepherd after doing their time for a few years as barn yard animals. There is so much joy when we tell these stories together, when we include children in engaging ways in our worship life, and when we bust out a whole rack of costumes that have been passed down by generation after generation of children to tell this story together by the light of two hundred candles.

On Christmas Eve I am comfortable with a little creative anachronism when it is colored by joy and serious little boys who know that the day has come for them to play their part in adoring the baby Jesus. We can work out the details later.


  1. Very good post. Having suffered through three years of high school Latin, I feel compelled to point out that the singular of magi is magus.

    1. Thanks Dave! I suffered through a year of college Latin, and you can see that not much has stuck.