Epiphany celebrates the wise men or Magi finding Jesus. They arrived sometime after his birth in Bethlehem, possibly a year or two later though this is a subject of much debate. Western Christians officially recognize Jan. 6th as the traditional date of Epiphany but it is increasingly common to celebrate on the first Sunday after Jan. 1st. This year January 6th actually falls on Sunday.
In my sermon preparation I have been thinking about our manger scenes. Historically the adoration of the shepherds and the adoration of the Magi were combined into a single even for the sake of convenience. There were not actually wise men alongside the shepherds who came in from the fields bowing down and worshipping Jesus together. But I also tell people not to remove the wise men from their nativity displays. Whether it’s a full size manger with lifesize characters on the front lawn or ornately carved figures on your mantle piece, the nativity scene is an artistic display that should be allowed a little bit of license.
During the Middle Ages, what used to be known as the Dark Ages, Europe fell into a state of near pre-civilization. The Roman Empire had represented the pinnacle of what academics and engineers could do and its collapse left a crippling vacuum. The powerful armies and thriving economy were replaced by subsistence farming. There is little time to learn classic poetry or study philosophy when your goals for the day basically consist of not starving to death. It didn’t happen all at once but eventually the only people in all of Europe that could read and write were clergy. Monks continued copying by hand the scriptures and the only art to speak of were the engravings of Bible stories added to aid and enhance the understanding of the text. They were 2 dimensional and as art goes quite terrible but they were better than nothing. As the Renaissance began the gothic cathedrals featured huge stain glass windows, often representing Old Testament saints and events from the ministry of Jesus. Oil painting was a Renaissance innovation and this is where many of the images we use today in Bibles and churches came from. The artists knew that Jesus and his disciples were not white men with blonde and brown hair but over time we kind of forgot. European monarchs and church leaders of the time might be presented with Jesus and his mother Mary. They were historically incorrect but the artists were not even trying to represent true history; it was an artistic expression of how religious and pious they were. Look again at the Last Supper. The figures are first century Jews but the design and architecture of the building are 15th century Italy.
Modern nativity scenes are a tradition dating back to the 11th or 12th century. They tell a story of shepherds and wise men – a contrast of socioeconomic status – bowing in worship to the incarnate deity. Just like baptism and the Lord’s Supper are dramatic reenactments so the artistic expression of putting up a manger scene tells a story visually. Pictures of Jesus are no substitute for reading his words. The paintings of Christ on the cross fail to capture the horror and tragedy of his death but we find them useful. Putting the Magi back in the box will not fix everything else wrong with the nativity scene but that doesn’t mean they are not useful in helping us tell that story.