They litter all of our landscapes now—those cozy little manger scenes on every front lawn and church entrance, beaming with a comfort only tradition could carry. Our little, neat, illuminated manger scenes. Such a precious thing: the coming of God in the flesh to two happy, carefree parents, just enjoying the stars on a Bethlehem night. Too bad that image doesn’t seem to fall off the pages of Luke’s Gospel. In truth, that nativity scene means a whole lot more than you think. It’s a deep portrayal of tragedy, shrouding a light that should spark us to even greater worship than any comfortable manger scene could conjure up.
What Luke 2 Shows Us
The second chapter in Luke’s Gospel starts by painting a dark backdrop. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2:1). Caesar—an oppressive pagan lord with a god complex—reminds everyone that he’s in control, that they are under him. God was about to come into the world to a people pressed down and constantly threatened, a people conquered and crushed. And he wasn’t coming as a military brute, with enough zeal and braun to put Caesar on his back. He was coming on his own back, as a tiny creature with soft bones, a mouth empty of teeth, a heart fluttering to pump blood to tiny limbs. This is weakness entering a world of might. It’s a dark and humble scene.
But it gets more tragic. Where do Mary and Joseph go for the census? To Joseph’s hometown, of course. But not just to his hometown, to his own kin. We think of Mary and Joseph pounding on the door of an Ancient Near Eastern Holiday Inn. Luke suggests it wasn’t an inn. The Greek word katalumati is more accurately rendered “guest house,” as in, a house attached to a larger family residence. Joseph knocked on his family’s front door. And he wasn’t given a master bedroom for his pregnant wife. He wasn’t even given the guest house (katalumati). He was turned away. Why? We can only speculate that Joseph and Mary’s family situation (Mary being pregnant before they were married) was shameful to Joseph’s own family. There was either awkwardness, judgment, or both. In any case, he wasn’t welcomed by those who shared his blood. Joseph came to his own, and his own did not receive him. Sound familiar? Jesus’s birth in a manger is a tragedy of family rejection and judgment for the one person in the whole world that should have been embraced and bowed before. The manger was a place of rejection; not a hearth of love.
And who is told of this news? The kings? The politicians? The religious elites? What group of influencers would herald the message? None of them, actually. The message would go to the most humble, the non-influencers, those familiar with the dark and the cold—the shepherds. God, of course, has a history of hand-selecting shepherds for redemptive work (Abraham,Jacob, Moses, David, Amos). Shepherds are servant-leaders, caretakers, lovers of the lowly. They don’t have influence; they have humility. Apparently, that was more important. And so the Bethlehem shepherds (2:8) gather around the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). This is the one who will lead them, not by becoming a powerful king like David but by giving himself for a kingdom that didn’t want him. Are you sensing the tragedy yet?
One more moving detail. That heavenly host of angels—the ones your kids dress up as with tinsel-halos—aren’t actually a grand choir. Luke says “an angel of the Lord” (2:9) appeared to the shepherds. In the Old Testament, the angel of the Lord was the captain of God’s army (Num. 20:16,22–27; Judg. 2:1; 5:23; 6:11–12; 2 Sam. 24:16; 2 Kgs. 19:35; Ps. 34:7; 35:6; Isa. 37:36), not the choir director. The entire army of heavenly soldiers stood at salute, speaking for their true captain, delivering the strange news that their Lord would be coming not with a blazing sword of light and an armor of divine strength, but wrapped in old cloth to keep his cold body from shivering. He’d be set down in a food trough, not a bed. Jesus’s heavenly army could have built him better lodgings for his first night on earth, just as they could’ve been summoned to wipe out his naysayers (Matt. 26:53). Not this time, fellas. Not this time.
Can you feel the tragedy?
A Weak and Suffering Shepherd Child
Luke shows us how God entered history as a weak and suffering shepherd child. But what are we supposed to do with this? Feel sorry every time we drive by a manger scene? Tell all our neighbors that they have the whole nativity thing wrong? Scold people for finding comfort in a stable? Hardly. Amidst all the tragedy, the angels still tell the shepherds that this is good news. But how is it good when immersed in such tragedy?
It’s good news because the king of glory didn’t just come to the lowly; he came as the lowly. He entered the world at the bottom, to save those at the bottom (and we’re all at the bottom, by the way). His would be a life acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3), which is good news, because we’re all acquainted with grief, aren’t we? We’re all weak. We’re all needy. We’re all pilgrims suffering in the silence. Jesus is not merely the Lord; he’s our Lord. His tragic entrance is a perfect beginning to salvation for a tragic race. And so there is a glowing light of hope, even in this tragic nativity.
What your little nativity scene really means is that God came to the least and the lowest as the least and the lowest. He came to be with us more deeply than we can understand. He entered into our tragedy through his own tragedy. And he made a way for us to be with him amidst our own. And for that, certainly, we can give glory to God in the highest (2:14).