Like modern-day politicians, of whom I was certainly one, we all “dress up” this humble background today. No smell of manure under our Christmas tree coming from the manger: How about yours? Our dignified stable has animals in it but is relatively cleaner than most homes, slightly above a Motel 6.
Then there are the shepherds. In history, shepherds are not high in status. In political terms, they don’t even get to the $20 hot dog receptions — forget the $1,000-a-person receptions with a picture. Even Christ’s key lineage — famous King David — was sneered at by Goliath as just a shepherd boy.
We romanticize the shepherds today. The angels that brought the message to them of good news are also symbols of power. We prefer the Gabriels and Michaels with swords slaying the armies of Satan. Those images aren’t incorrect: They are just exceptional, not typical.
And then there are the not-so-wisemen. Considered wise by earthly standards because of claiming wisdom from analyzing the stars as astronomers, they attempted to translate from creations of God rather than seeking God. Their best claim to wisdom was discerning that a true king was born. King Herod, who at least feared they might be correct because of their worldly reputations, put to death every male child under 2 just to make sure he had no rival.
Herod’s actions make it clear that the wisemen were nowhere around on the day Christ was born. It was years later. But putting the wisemen by our manger scene makes it so much more royal, doesn’t it? All drab colors would be so boring. The bright robes, camels and those royal gifts give this rather undistinguished gathering a dignity.
Somehow we have turned the biblical lesson from showing the humiliating impotency of earthly wisemen who must bow down to the lowest-status human possible, into bestowing a wise human endorsement by royalty that justifies Jesus Christ’s kingship. This, of course, is something a political consultant would do who was trying to sell Jesus to the masses. And then he’d have to gloss over all the Beatitudes, the peace stuff and all that rhetoric about serving the poor as opposed to the rich and powerful.
I, too, like the gloss and glitter of Christmas. But Jesus chose these roots and the life that followed to show that real wisdom and salvation do not come from the praise of humans but in honoring God.
Can you imagine a presidential candidate winning today by stressing God rather than raising millions and making promises about what government can do for you or praising your individualism? He’d be crucified.