Some weeks ago I met with a priest named Fr. Mike at his office in the local Curia. He is a well-trained lawyer who is now in charge of civil legal affairs for one of the largest Catholic dioceses in Europe. His work deals with donations, inheritances, real estate, and the like. Several ideas from that conversation are still fresh in my mind. One of aspect of our conversation dealt with Fr. Mike’s workload. When I saw the pile of cases he had in front of him, I asked him how large his team was. As it turns out, the “team” is Fr. Mike and a single assistant. Just imagine his work. I felt bad taking up his time.
The other part of the conversation that surprised me was when he told me that some Catholics wanted to remove the crèche (Nativity scene, pesebre in Spanish or presepe in Italian) from public displays, arguing that it might be offensive or biased against non-Christians. I have travelled throughout the Western world, and even during my years of agnosticism I never found anything offensive in the Nativity story and its representation. In the United States there have been debates over the right to display religious scenes, even when historically accurate, on government property. But the questions and complaints were seldom raised by Christians.
Let me summarize the tradition of the Nativity scene. Although those who met Jesus must have kept the date of his birth fresh in their memories, the celebration of Christmas and many of its traditional aspects took centuries to develop. Christian traditions and customs are remembrances, efforts to keep in mind events which mark and define the faith. Among these, the celebration of the Nativity – perhaps more so than other Christian holidays – is one which involves traditions and figures from many different cultures. As a Christian I see the crèche as a representation of Truth, but beyond my faith, I see it as an image of unity in diversity rather than a push for one religion.
Muslims, who of course did not exist at the time of Jesus’ birth, honor Mary and her son. Some even recite verses from the Qur’an about Jesus and Mary in their prayers. The three wise men came from the East, and scholars mention numerous countries that today are part of that “East” and most dominated by the Muslims: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq, even stretching perhaps into India. New research even points at a Chinese historical connection. Given that the myrrh was from Saba, Southern Yemen or Ethiopia might also claim a place in the Nativity story.
The depictions of these three visitors – whose traditional names are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – also show them of varied ages and race, with Melchior mentioned as the oldest, Gaspar in the middle, and Balthasar the youngest, perhaps still in his 20s. The predominant religion during their time in the East was Zoroastrianism. From as long ago as the 12th century, Balthasar has been depicted as a dark-skinned “king.” The gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense were all greatly appreciated in most cultures around the world. Benedict XVI, writing about the magi, said that they also represent the “search for truth, a search for the true God and, hence, ‘philosophy’ in the original sense of the word.”
The full text of this article appeared on Forbes.com on December 24, 2019. Click here to read the whole article.
Hompage photo credit: Alejandro Chafuen.