How many of you remember growing up watching Sesame Street and seeing their “One of these things does not belong here” song? You know the one, they’d have three pictures of blue bikes and one of a red truck and you’d have to pick that the red truck was the odd one out. In looking at the Nativity scenes that are popping up everywhere I kind of feel like they are a bit like the song, except none of the elements belong together. If I hadn’t grown up listening to the Christmas story and seeing Nativity scenes all my life, the grouping of a young Jewish couple with a baby, some shepherds, some rich travelers and a bunch of animals would make absolutely no sense, and I think I’ve spent a lot of time taking for granted how significant this diversity is. So instead of accepting it as normal, let’s take a few minutes to look at why it is anything but normal, starting by looking at the people involved.
Mary and Joseph: Mary and Joseph were a young couple, most likely teenagers, who were engaged but not yet married. They had traveled about 90 miles by foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Given that Mary was pregnant before they were married, they were no doubt the subject of gossip and bullying in their hometown, so it may have been a bit of a relief to get away for a while. That is until Mary had to travel the distance heavily pregnant only to get there and find that there was no comfortable place to stay. I’m sure none of their conversations about starting a family had looked like that.
The Shepherds: Shepherds had a pretty important role in Biblical times, caring for the sheep that provided meat for food, wool for clothes, and also made up an important part of ceremonial sacrifices. Despite the importance of what they did, they weren’t exactly the first to get invited around for dinner or to high society events. Shepherds literally lived with the sheep out in the countryside, making it difficult for them to be as ceremonially clean as the Jewish law required, or clean at all for that matter. When it came to important events, shepherds were a long way down the invitation list.
The Magi: The Magi were high level priests, most likely from a place called Parthia which was a rival to the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born. Contrary to all the kids stories you’ve heard there would have been more than three of them, and the probably travelled in a large caravan including servants and cooks, and an armed escort. Given they were not Jewish, they were by definition Gentiles, meaning that again they were outsiders. Rich, powerful outsiders, but outsiders none the less. Yet here they were, present to celebrate the Jewish Messiah.
Jesus: The reason they were all there, and the reason we have Christmas. Even in his infancy, Jesus was bringing people from different backgrounds together. The Son of God in human form, traveling further than any of the others coming all the way from Heaven to earth. Somehow this baby meant so much that angels announced his birth and a star led wise men to his location.
Reflecting on this eclectic group over the last few weeks, I’ve realised that in a lot of ways they are symbolic of the people Jesus interacted with in his ministry 30-odd years later. Time and again in the Bible we see Jesus interacting with those on the outside of Jewish society. We see him healing with those with leprosy (Matthew 8: 1-4), who were outcasts because they were considered unclean. We see him ministering to Samaritans (John 4:1-30), the bitter enemies of the Jews. We see him reaching out to tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10), who were despised as conspirators with the Romans. We even seeing him ministering to a Roman Officer (Matthew 8:5-13), despite the fact that the Romans were an occupying force in his homeland. No matter who they were or what issues they had, Jesus welcomed them.
This Christmas season, many of us will be gathering with family and friends to celebrate, but not everyone has that privilege. The thing I take from that first Christmas, and from Jesus’s time on earth, is that all are welcome to come to him. No matter what your background, where you’re from, or what issues you are facing; Jesus welcomes you. If you are feeling on the outside this Christmas, or just don’t know who this Jesus is, I would encourage you to take a step to get to know him. Drop into a Christmas service in a church, speak to a Christian friend, grab a Bible and read the Christmas story. You can even feel free to send us an email or a message. Whatever happens this Christmas, remember that Jesus welcomes you to come to him, and he came to earth because you matter.