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My early life as a black sheep in a nativity scene
by Graeme J. Davidson,
10 December 2005

In the Bible only sinners like Pharaoh and Herod celebrated birthdays.

....My earliest memory of church is playing a sheep in a nativity scene. I wanted to be a pirate. No way. This was a story about a baby and his parents, wise guys with gifts of gold, myrrh and Frankenstein (I got that wrong), angels, shepherds and sheep.
.... To my seven-year old mind, this was sissy. At rehearsals, I misbehaved and asked awkward questions like how the animals could eat if baby Jesus was lying in their food bin.
....The play’s director knew how to handle black sheep.
....“Graeme,” she said sternly, “continue to act like that and I’ll make you play Joseph. Then you’ll have to put your arm around Jane who’s playing the Virgin Mary.”
....“Yuck!” I sheepishly rejoined the fold.
....On watching the show our adoring parents gushed about how “we darling lambs looked so cute”. Puke. How embarrassing. So I began to think about why I was a sheep and why Mary needed a husband when the father was the Holy Ghost.
....I blame Saint Francis of Assisi. At Christmas 1223, he was inspired to recreate what he thought was the original Bethlehem birth scenario – with hay, ox and an ass – at the church of Greccio in Italy.
....There’d been nativity scenes before then when the priest put the consecrated bread in a ‘manger’ under the altar to represent Christ’s infant body, but Saint Francis’ reality show let everyone “see what he suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe”.
....It was a hit. Nativity scenes of the ‘little babe of Bethlehem’ lying in a manger because there was ‘no crib for a bed’ were soon all the rage in European churches. By the Renaissance, they were a must-have in Christian homes, and Madonna with Child paintings and icons were in hot demand.
....Of course, anyone who has read the original texts knows that in our replicas of the nativity we mistakenly mix local shepherds with the Eastern magi by morphing the two very different accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.
....There are three versions of Jesus’ conception in the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel says the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel asserts several times he is the son of Joseph, which Mathew and Luke’s Gospels show through Jesus’ family line.
.... And John’s Gospel says Jesus’ opponents taunted him by implying he was “born of fornication”.
....Jesus’ illegitimacy was an early anti-Christian smear. In the second century, the philosopher Celsus ridiculed Christians by claiming Jesus was so ashamed of his origins he invented the story of his virgin birth in a fashion similar to birth myths of several Greek gods. Jesus wasn’t born at Bethlehem, Celsus said, and Mary was impregnated “by a Roman soldier called Panthera and that she was driven away by her husband – the carpenter – and convicted of adultery".
....With attacks like that, the fledgling Church wasn’t too keen to send party invitations for Jesus’ birthday.
.... Nor is Christmas listed in the accounts we have of their festivals. Baby Jesus appears in only a smattering of early Christian art. Most portraits depict Christ – dare I mention it – with sheep. He’s the Good Shepherd, the God-given leader who seeks the lost sheep who are sinners.
....Christmas only appears on the Christian calendar in the middle of the fourth century. And then, after many suggestions, Christian leaders picked December 25, celebrated by Romans as the winter solstice and associated with the Roman cult of Mithras and the annual rebirth of Deus Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun God.
....No doubt, there were Romans at the time who moaned about the hijacking of their religion for the worship of the Son instead of the Sun.
....In a similar way, Christians now complain of the deafening Christmas chorus of ‘Oh come all ye shoppers’, the banal ‘happy holidays’ swill on TV and homage to a secular Santa with commercial Claws.
....But Christians too are in danger of hijacking the faith with syrupy sentimentalism over baby Jesus as the reason for the season instead of why God became incarnate.
....Origen, an influential early Church leader, was against Christmas. He argued that in the Bible only sinners like Pharaoh and Herod celebrated birthdays. “The saints not only neglect to mark the day of their birth with festivity,” Origen said, “but also, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse this day”.
....Maybe the Puritan Scrooges in the English Parliament of 1644 got it right. They passed a bah humbug act declaring December 25 a fast day. They also banned Christmas celebrations, including plum puddings, mince pies – and nativity scenes.



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