It's a warm, happy scene every year. The baby rests comfortably in the manger with Mary and Joseph hovering near by. The animals sit and lay, quiet and attentive, in the stable which, until recently, had been occupied only by them. The shepherds (if there's room for more than one) sit quietly, watching the baby intently with unwavering and unblinking eyes. The Three Kings - one on bended knee, one stooped over, the other leaning back in awe and all three representing an appropriate diversity of ethnic origins - are offering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
If you got the deluxe set, there's an angel that may hover overhead somehow or kneel nearby. And in the really fancy ones, the angel holds a banner that reads "Glory to God in the highest."
It's the Christmas Creche, a perfect scene from a single, perfect night.
It was far from perfect. Meaningfully so, in fact. The scene we make is cobbled together from three gospels and a lot of imagination, not all the characters were there at the same time, it wasn't really that kind of stable, there … well, I could go through the list of things biblically "wrong" with the scene as we've assembled it, but I did that last year (and each year), so let's just cut to the point I also try to make each year: does it matter?
It's a beautiful way to draw people into the story. And maybe the details aren't as important as the meaning, at least on Christmas Eve. There's plenty of time to explore the story the figures represent. It's just that we need to do that: explore the story.
We have at least half a dozen manger scenes or creches at our house and I love them all. I don't know that I realized how much I loved them all until this year when we were given a beautifully carved wooden set. Each figure is a square pillar with the character carved in the top and biblical quotes about them written on the sides of the pillar. The tops are all angled so that when you put the figures together, they gently slope upwards from the baby to the star. It's impossible to describe it in any way which could do it justice. But the thing is, everyone in the scene fits together perfectly. And when someone's missing, it's pretty obvious.
That's what started me thinking about how important it is to explore the story. So I wondered about the magi.
There's some obvious detail things, like how Matthew's gospel (where we find their story) doesn't say there was only three. We assumed that from the three gifts. Matthew doesn't name them either, nor does he say they're kings, only magi or wise ones, and, given that they had to travel, it's a certainty they didn't arrive at the stable that night.
But here's two things I wonder about. "There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was" (Matthew 2:9). That sounds like the star moved as they followed. The light led them to Jesus, it wasn't just a stationary marker, like a buoy. It led them to Jesus. (For the best "Star of Bethlehem" ever, watch the St. Paul's Art'n'Kids video The Christmas Story on YouTube. Now that's an active star.) You have to look for the light and be ready to follow it.
And second, the magi weren't Jews, they weren't even from the local area. They were from the mystical "east." To be blunt, they were foreigners, in every way. Yet, it's revealed to them, and through them to us, that this is the promised one. That sounds to me like Jesus is for everyone, for "all the nations of the earth."
That's what Epiphany is, really, The Big Reveal.
Jesus is here. The Light, the Word made Flesh, Emmanuel (meaning God-with-us) is here. Have you seen the light? Do you see Jesus?