One of my yearly Christmas traditions is making salt dough ornaments. Last Christmas, I started making a nativity set for our home. So far, I’ve made the core trio: Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, whom my husband lovingly refers to as “peanut Jesus” because, well, you can see the resemblance.
You’d think that a nativity set is fairly standard. It wasn’t until I started making my own that I realized how many decisions needed to go into the process. I needed to sort out the biblical nativity from the traditional ones and also all the commercial images that are available to us.
Let’s start with clothing. What did Mary and Joseph wear? It was Israel, not the renaissance, so this sort of clothing is out.
I went for simple, earthy colors, and robes that people who traveled long distances might wear. The biblical account (Luke 2:4-5) says they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem (a little over 70 miles as the crow flies). Mary’s veil looks a bit like a bonnet, but I wanted to make her look a little more feminine.
Jesus is wrapped in purple, which I admit, has no biblical origin. Purple cloth was expensive, and these folks were poor. But I like the symbolism of the Prince of Peace wrapped in kingly colors. I painted his manger gold. Feed troughs weren’t typically constructed from this material, but once again, I liked the symbolism.
This year, I’m tackling the wise men. First, I have to decide how many to make. The bible doesn’t say how many there were, just that they brought three types of gifts. I could make two or 20 if I wanted, but 20 wouldn’t fit very well on my mantel.
Clothing will be a problem here too. I’m not going to use this as my model.
I’m fairly certain the magi weren’t three white guys dressed in circus clown outfits, bearing potluck casseroles.
We’re all used to the song “We Three Kings,” but the New Testament accounts don’t refer to them being royalty. Old Testament prophecies are the source for this tradition, especially Psalm 72:10: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” The Magi were from the east, and they brought very expensive tributes. It’s not a long shot. John Piper connects another prophecy to the Magi in a 1997 Advent sermon. Isaiah 60:3 mentions light and kings: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
You might be wondering why I’m putting so much thought into my nativity set. “It’s just a Christmas decoration,” you’re probably saying. I admit, I get a bit obsessive compulsive about my artwork. But I think it’s important to continually sort out what our culture teaches us about Jesus from tradition and what is actually in the Bible. When it comes to putting my faith into practice, before I fire up the ovens and let the dough harden, getting set in my ways, it’s good for me examine the Jesus I worship and hold him to the light of scripture.