The nativity set I purchased for my grandchildren has a border collie in it- not a Roman drover dog, not a Canaan dog- a border collie! And the Scottish canine isn’t the only mistake. The smiling camel, which presumably carried the three tubby wise men, shouldn’t have showed up until much later; the angel on the roof is nowhere mentioned in scripture ; and- a PIG! Apparently, these Jews didn’t keep kosher.
Whether or not the designer of the nativity set knows anything about Jewish culture, he certainly understands how to attract little people. My youngest granddaughter is completely mesmerized by our set. She will stand quietly arranging and rearranging its components so that, in her mind at least, they are just right. Last night, I discovered that the angel had flown away and the border collie was keeping watch from the top of the stable. One sheep had assumed a position up a palm tree, and the prohibited piggy sat grinning in the donkey’s cart. The holy family lay scattered around- Mary had apparently decided that sheep are easier than babies, and was abiding in the field. Periodically, my older grandchildren will wander by and put the set in order, but invariably, little Elinor will come back to fix it the way she wants it- with the angel gone and the border collie back up on the stable roof.
What did the nativity really look like? Was Jesus born soon after His parents’ arrival in Bethlehem, or had they been there for a while? Did the birth occur in a stable or a cave, or was the couple simply assigned a room at the lower level of a house? Did Mary have help, or was Joseph forced to be midwife? Were animals there? The presence of a manger- a feed trough- implies it, but doesn’t prove it.
A lot of talk has been devoted to the idea that Jesus was born in the filth of a stable, but there is no mention of manure or drool-soaked hay in the good doctor’s account. And I’d like to defend Mary here. What mother would wade through manure to plop her newborn into a bare feedbox? Wouldn’t she find a swept corner of the room, and insist that Joseph grab some fresh hay and a sheet for the manger crib? Jesus needn’t have been born in muck; it was hard enough that He was born amidst the squalor of the human condition.
The childrens’ nativity set has smiling people wearing brightly colored clothing. It has a barn and a palm tree, a donkey and cart, a tiny mouse hiding in the hay. It all makes a happy scene, and serves an important purpose- to teach the child the elements of the Christmas story and establish the centrality of its serious message- that God came to earth as a baby to save us from our sins. The joy of that message should be reflected on every human face. If they could comprehend it, even the animals would rejoice.
A happy border collie by the manger? Well, border collies herd lambs after all. Perhaps the nativity’s designer was wiser than I thought.
“…Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John 1:29