The mystery that is Christmas is found in the story of Christmas, a story which is a story of symbols. Let’s examine the Nativity scene to see what the symbols mean.
First we have this group of shepherds who see and hear the angels bringing the wonderful news. These shepherds represent common ordinary people, then and now. They are even a little more common than usual because shepherding was usually a job given to boys who hadn’t been equipped for more important occupations. Plus many of them were probably only 9 to 15 years old. Jesus probably did His share of shepherding as a boy, even though His father was a carpenter.
Because the shepherds were very young does not mean that they were unlettered or stupid. After all, it was to them that the angels brought the Good News. Ever wonder why the angels didn’t go to a group of adults instead, perhaps the temple authorities, or scribes and Pharisees, or theologians, to people who supposedly would know what to do with this News? No, the shepherds represent Faith. They heard the message and believed it. They did the first necessary thing to be done by anyone who wants to know, and to experience the love of God first hand. They went to see!
By the way, the work of shepherding is work where the whole job has to do with faith. A shepherd has to watch the flock as though it were a bunch of kids, and he has to tend the flock as if his life depends on it, because sheep just cannot take care of themselves. I believe that because the shepherd epitomizes faithfulness Jesus saw fit to liken Himself to this lowly profession quite often. He even called Himself the Good Shepherd on many occasions.
And what about the wisemen? Whom do they represent? I believe they represent Wisdom in spiritual matters. When the Christmas story was originally told, back in more ancient days, listeners would have known who these wisemen were. They were probably astrologers from somewhere like Babylon. I almost think that the wisemen were the ancient world’s equivalent of today’s nuclear physicists, except that they studied the “physics” of God. That is, they represent Understanding raised to the highest level. And when understanding reaches its summit, it leads in the same direction as the simple faith of the shepherds, i.e., straight to the Christ Child. So we have the faith of the shepherd boys, and the wisdom of wisemen bowing before the same manger.
And there are others. What about Joseph? In the earlier days the name of Joseph stood for “good counsel” and Joseph was a very important figure. In the Middle Ages people prayed to Joseph for help in straightening out their thinking in practical matters, and in giving clarity to their spiritual lives. This role of giving good counsel was assigned to Joseph because he was the one Jesus allowed to raise Him as a son, and to be His teacher & His guide into adulthood.
So now we have Faith, Wisdom, and Good Counsel. Next, we come to perfect and complete surrender, as it is given to us in Mary, the mother. It is said that Mary is purity personified. But it is a purity that comes from a very special kind of strength. It is no small thing to become so clean of self-will that there is nothing left but the indwelling will of God. This kind of surrender resides only in the very strong personality, because with surrender comes courage and dedication.
So there at the manger, in the people around Jesus, we have Faith, Wisdom, Good Counsel and Purity, all merging into one event of salvation (meaning “saving health”). True wisdom is faith, and faith is true wisdom. Wisdom is purity, and purity is good counsel. And everything leads to the Christ who is all of this.
We see all that in the Nativity scene, and that is the meaning of Christmas, the essence of God’s gifts to us, all of which add up to Love. And the gifts we bring, from all our different backgrounds, merge into one major gift ….. into the gift of Christ.
What else do we see through the Nativity scene? We see that Christ is Infinite Rejuvenation...is New Life given. We see that the love of God abounds with no let up. Medieval theologians said, without any self-importance, that the goal of a Christian life is to give birth to this child, and for each of us individually to do this, in ourselves. Letting this child be born in our own lives is the same as inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is simply a different way of saying it, another way of saying “born again.” What we see is that infinite reality always comes back to the advent of that child in the manger, and that child in us. And what about all of the animals in the stable area? What do we see in them? Do not the animals remind us that the whole creation groans while waiting for the salvation (the “saving health”) of God? Of course they do! All creatures are included in this!
And what else do we see? In this simple child-like scene around the manger there is a lot of heavy-duty theology being done. It really is big stuff, a microcosm of the whole message of God. It is so profound that we might have to ask the Child to explain all of it more thoroughly to those of us, like me, who have trouble seeing. Because it is through the eyes of the Christ that we are to see life clearly! And God has given us that Child! And God has also offered us the eyes to see with! What then do we see? We see God! And that’s when we have the very Merriest of Christmases. Because this glow and excitement of Christmas doesn’t wane and fade away a few days later! That is my prayer for you. Happy holidays to one and all!
The Rev. Richard G. Parker is a retired American Baptist & United Methodist minister, residing in Newburyport with his spouse, Karen. He is also the coordinator of this column and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.