Art has a major impact on our lives, whether or not we fully understand or appreciate the art around us. Even the lack of art in our lives can have an impact on how we see the world. At Christmas we turn our homes into works of art as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. My wife and I enjoy collecting nativities representing different cultures from around the world, and our house is starting to show a nice collection. These representations of Jesus’ birth impact me as I reflect on the cultures represented. I am sure I will return to this theme and how it is fun to see Jesus depicted entering every ethnic and cultural milieu, but that is another reflection. One thing I noticed last year as I pondered the various scenes is, the wise men always outnumber the shepherds. I am sure the actual reason for this is most manufacturers of nativity scenes follow the common convention of three wise men and feel that added three or four shepherds would make the piece overly crowded; but I cannot help seeing some irony. Jesus spent his life speaking against the kind of wealth and power represented in the magi and their gifts, while reaching out to people like the shepherds. Yet, when it is time for us to remember and celebrate his life we choose to associate his with the wealth and dignity while shunning the people who he spent his life touching.
Our artistic representations of Jesus’ birth highlight the pomp and gift giving, which have become so celebrated and commercialized in our own culture. I may hear sermon after sermon talking about the poor dirty shepherds, who brought nothing and were outcasts from society; but the message sent from our art is the place to focus is on those people who were entertained by kings and brought expensive gifts. No matter how eloquent the preacher is the sermon of our artwork is powerful. This is because the beauty of the art inspires us. We are implicitly taught to associate the beauty with the good, so when we walk into the church and see the beautiful depiction of the birth of Jesus that becomes our good. The whitewashed picture of fine clothes and ornate gifts becomes our picture of Christmas and we seek to imitate it in our homes. All the while forgetting that one (perhaps two) lonely shepherds often standing far to the side.
I believe seeing this same picture in multiple places, throughout the Christmas season, year after year of our lives produces a side-effect, we forget the shepherds. Consider that Mary and Joseph opened up a house (not a public inn) to a group of shepherds who may have been in the hills for days or weeks. These men likely brought nothing with them and Jesus’ parents showed them hospitality. In our artistic renditions these men are clean and well dressed; but I am sure they originally would have been intimidating to Mary. I personally like the image that as the shepherds come near to Jesus they are clean and well dressed, I think that is precisely what happens to each of us. But I do not like how this image of true hospitality is downplayed in favor of the reception of presents.
Do we truly want to send the message that we should open our house to many more gift givers than to people in need? If Christmas is truly about giving then we need to depict Jesus and his parents giving, show them hosting a meal for the shepherds. I do enjoy the idea that I may actually give a gift to God, which is contained in the dominant picture of the nativity. But I need to be reminded that I am to be like Jesus, welcoming of the poor and needy. I need to see the poor and lowly outnumbering the wealthy (and maybe crowding them away from the manger). Our art will witness to what is important and I would like to see art that calls me to care for those Jesus sought to save. We have one nativity (African inspiration) with six figures, representing the shepherds and wise men. What I notice about this scene is that, beyond the even numbers, everyone is posed for singing and the atmosphere is one of unity and joy. I like this one because it seems like the wise men have given up the wealth and all people have joined in common celebration of the newborn king. I hope this is the message that rings through our celebrations this year.