Dec  2016 27
It's New and Improved: The More Inclusive Nativity Scene

EDITOR'S NOTE: In September, President Gary Peluso-Verdend asked what kind of nativity scenes congregations would set up for the 2016 Advent/Christmas season. He proposed two revised nativity sets to tell the Jesus story in a more powerful way. This Christmas week, we offer Gary’s vision of two more complex nativity scenes.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with inventing the nativity set (well, at least a life-sized one). In a society of illiterate peasants, visual representations of biblical stories were essential teaching tools.

I’m sure the pairing of that devotional tableau with selling products in an advanced consumer society dependent on the Christmas season for a robust economy was not what Francis had in mind!

But, as Home Depot sets out Christmas trees, preachers are planning holiday services, and music programs are gearing up for the busiest season of the church year, I’d like to reconsider how the nativity scene can—once again—function to teach the Christmas stories.

That teaching effort would be advanced by allowing Matthew and Luke to have their say independently of each other, and to add the characters that domesticated nativity sets omit.

So, imagine:

First, parse out the basics: The manger per se, the shepherds, the census that required the journey to Bethlehem and its sold-out inn space, and the choir of angels are in Luke only.

The magi are in Matthew only, but even here there is no mention of the number of Persian astrologers, only the number of gifts. Neither biblical book mentions animals lowing, cooing, or baaing. The star is also only in Matthew's version of the story.

Second, let’s bring in the characters that traditional nativity scenes leave out. Think about the teaching possibilities and how the church might use these revised scenes to tell the Jesus story in a more powerful way!

Imagine two nativity sets with the following additions:

Matthew, where Jesus is born at home Bethlehem, presumably in a house.

  • Figure cluster 1. Bring in a cluster of women from his genealogy to the cradle: how about Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the foreigner, and Bathsheba who was likely raped by King David? Matthew includes them in the genealogy which precedes Jesus’ birth narrative. A reminder that everyone’s history is messy and complicated, that there are overlooked but important persons, that “purity” is overrated, and that genealogy is not destiny.
  • Figure cluster 2. Joseph in bed, with an angel hovering over him. Happens twice—to tell him his bride-to-be did not have a fling, and then to tell him to flee with his family to Egypt. A reminder that a family fleeing terror and depending on the hospitality of foreigners is a part of this story.
  • Figure cluster 3. Herod and his counselors, plotting evil. They consulted after the magi arrived looking for the child. When the magi did not reveal their tracking secret (the star) to Herod, Herod slays baby boys. A reminder that the mission of God and the way of Jesus threaten those who benefit from the suffering of others.


  • Figure cluster 1. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. Jesus’ relatives, who were important in their support for Mary during her pregnancy. In addition, Jesus is baptized later by John and may even (according to some scholars) have been a disciple of John until John’s arrest. A reminder that Jesus had a larger family context than Mary and Joseph.
  • Figure cluster 2. Besides being the new mom, Mary just has to show up a second time, including when she was visited by Gabriel. Mary’s speech, the Magnificat, is a truly revolutionary and prophetic speech; it deserves representation in a Lukan Christmas scene. A reminder that this gospel of God is anything but tame and safe.
  • Figure cluster 3. Let’s bring in Caesar Augustus, his client king Herod, and a bag of money. A reminder that Jesus was born in a land occupied by a hostile imperial force that lived on fear, terror, and tribute. One cannot understand the New Testament without remembering whose foot was on the writers’ necks and backs.

So, what kind of nativity set will your congregation set up this year? The domesticated and blended story is a beautiful one. But allowing Matthew and Luke to each have their say, and representing in the nativity tableau more of the fullness of their stories, would provide powerful and truer teaching tools than the blended and limited traditional sets allow.

I’d love to see what artisans could do to represent the rest of the story. 

As a side note: a more evangelist-specific nativity set would change debates about putting nativity sets in civic spaces :-). Most cities would not touch the revised sets, which means the churches might have a chance to change the narrative.



Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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