Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:
Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.
Advent Calendar Day 5: Shepherds
Shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night, tell us something important:
Christ’s birth, according to the story told in the Bible, WASN’T in December.
Or, at least, that was the reasoning used by the early Church when they attempted to peg down the likeliest date for Christ’s birth, with most of the notables pushing for a March, April, or May birthday: the lambing season.
So why the later move to December 25? The popular theory is that it was a deliberate attempt by the church to co-opt the many pagan festivals that occurred during this time, as many cultures had solstice celebrations when the day was at its shortest. But while the church DID appropriate those festivals, and while the church would certainly do this on later occasions – Valentine’s Day, for instance – that wasn’t the motive with Christmas, just a happy byproduct. Many of Christmas’s trappings (Trees and greenery, ec) stem from pagan celebratory practices, but the Dec 25 date precedes the Gregorian method of conversion by cultural appropriation, and is rooted in the idea that Jesus’s conception was the same date as his crucifixion, the latter erroneously calculated by the second/third century Christian author Quintus Tertullianus as March 25th.
I’d usually be wary of this theory of the Christmas date motive because when it is proffered it’s mostly by Christians intent on trying to dissociate Christmas from any pagan roots, or, worse, December 25th literalists, and almost any time Christian apologists latch on to a school of thought that supports a theologically rigid but fragile position it’s an immediate red flag on its academic validity (just ‘cause of a terrible, terrible track record). But the annunciation (conception) argument has one REALLY big thing going for it:
The split in dating between the Eastern and Western churches.
Eastern churches, at least as far back as the mid-300s, have their annunciation and crucifixion dates set not at March 25 but on April 6th/7th, thereby putting their Christmas at January 6th.
I’d lay money that the Eastern crucifixion date precedes the annunciation one, since the crucifixion date has a deductive starting point in the Gospel of John, whereas the annunciation/birth dates are 100% guesswork. If the Easterners ran the same place-the-annunciation-at-the-crucifixion-date play that the Westerners did, and that seems to be the case, then that offers the simple motive of dating Christmas nine months later, rather than assigning it to coincide with pagan festivals.
That said, Christmas as a religious holiday certainly benefitted from its alignment with existing festivals, using them as a back door for doctrine and worship in the public sphere.
Anyway, back to the shepherds. Watching their flocks in springtime, probably.
When Penny was two, we got her a Fisher-Price “Little People” Nativity set and I was astounded that it came with no shepherd. Multiple animals, three kings, an angel, and the Holy Family, but no shepherd. And that really rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t imagine that the folks at FP are pushing a theological agenda, but I didn’t care for the message created by the absence. The only folks on hand in the set to pay liege to the Christ child are kings and an angel of God, the cream of the social crop. Four “haves”, no “have nots.”
The shepherds, the first to be alerted to lil’ Yesu’s presence, are, to me, an extremely important symbolic element of the Christmas story. They showcase that Christ’s kingdom is first and foremost for the downtrodden, the meek, the poor, all those folks mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Though there are plenty who jump through theological hurdles to try and disenfranchise the disenfranchised (even with shepherds, I’ve seen suggestions that the shepherds in the story were extra special fancy super-shepherds, in charge of temple sheep intended for sacrifice and therefore of high station in their field and community, not common rabble), populism is central to the Christ narrative and, in my view, the Christian faith. That shepherds and kings (we’ll get into the kings later) are both humbled and awed by the presence of Jesus puts them on the same footing. They are made equals (right here in the corporeal world, no less!) by the God-child’s arrival.
As someone who’s placed a lot of emotional stock in fairness since I was a wee one, I love the equalization that the shepherds represent in the narrative.
Advent Calendar Day 6: Stable Boy
Though I’ve never seen it played this way, I would expect that Mary and Joseph wouldn’t be the only out-of-towners in for the census, and surely not the only ones for whom the inn had no room. Were I to tackle a Nativity story, I’d make the stable a crowded, dirty, and possibly dangerous place, with lots of folks from all over huddled in against the elements and the dangers presented by sleeping outdoors in an urban environment. Part of this would be thematic, but it would also be a logical bend to swing.
A small town might be a trusting town when it comes to known neighbors, but with a big influx of strangers even the most welcoming sorts would likely take precautions against the troubles that might accompany anonymity – a stranger who knows not to whom an ox belongs might feel no guilt were he to contemplate stealing that ox from its nameless owner, or so might the owner assume. To that end, it seems likely that whomever owned or managed the stable might’ve employed a rough-and-tumble teenager to sit watch at night as deterrent to anyone who might make use of Bethlehem’s sudden and temporary population surplus.
I’ve never encountered a stable boy in a Nativity narrative, but that doesn’t mean there oughtn’t be one. Mine isn’t much moved by the events going on; he just wants his shift to be up so he can blow his wages on some rad sandals.
Advent Calendar Day 7: The Heavenly Host
I wrote up my reasoning behind the design of the archangels back on day 4, but I ought to elaborate on why I picked four (three of whom are shown together here):
It’s because I’m lazy.
I’ve heard the four-archangel number thrown around since I first became interested in this stuff back in college. Four is an absolutely fantastic number when it comes to an ensemble, especially if the personalities vary drastically, which I expect they would here. Three is great if you have a protagonist and side characters, but if you want narrative equality amongst your group with the lean efficiency of a minimal group dynamic, four is the ideal; it’s why I use a gang of four in the Creeps books.
The Catholic Church only recognizes three (the ones pictured in the middle here): Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the only ones mentioned by name in the canonical scriptures. But Raphael’s mention, in the Book of Tobit (recognized in orthodox Christian traditions but not officially in Judaic ones), says “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord.” So where does four come from?
Angel stuff is all over the place in the Bible, and extra-Biblical sources. These four come from our earliest (and richest source) of angelography, the Book of Enoch. Enoch wasn’t canonized as part of the old testament/Tanakh (the primary conflict in its inclusion probably the then-radical notion that angels might rebel against God), though it WAS widely read and oft-cited (it’s quoted in Jude and mentioned in the non-canonical Epistle of Barnabus), and has informed much of the theology and myth that surround angels.
So you could go with four, or seven, or ten, or one (the generally accepted possibilities), but like I said, four has the best and most convenient narrative possibility, and that’s where I like to set my tent. Uriel, of course, isn’t on hand; he’s spiriting John away.
Seraphim are a class of angel mentioned in Enoch (surprise!), Isaiah, and Revelation, and their name means “burning ones,” so I drew ‘em as angels by way of the Human Torch. They’re described as having six wings (one pair to cover their face in the presence of God, the other their feet, ‘cause feet are dirty).
Art note – I drew the angels in pen, but did color holds on the seraphim in the computer to turn the line art red for the first row and orange for those in the back. I then watercolored the color-printed line art. I’m happy with the results and will likely employ them in the future.
The blue cherubim (the plural form of cherub, culturally recognized as chubby nude babies with feathery wings) are described in Ezekiel. Six-winged again, though since “feet” is sometimes a biblical euphemism for private parts I hedged my bet and threw their middle pair at crotch-level. The four animal faces (ox, eagle, lion, and man) come from a popular assumption that the four cherubs seen by Ezekiel are the four “living creatures” described by John R in Revelations are the same quartet.
Now, these may seem like unusual angel drawings, but I’m actually playing it pretty conservatively; I’m leaving out the whole covered-in-eyes thing and I’m not making hands grow out of anyone’s armpits. There’s only so much one can do design-wise before you completely sever the connection between subject and audience, and I feel like I pushed these as far as I could go without doing so.
Advent Calendar Day 8: The Ox and Ass
We could argue the chicken/egg thing with a lot of the Nativity characters so far as whether their narrative presence was interpreted symbolically, or if they were a part of the narrative BECAUSE they served a symbolic purpose, but with these two barnstormers it’s clear: their presence is entirely symbolic.
The ox and the ass (I know the cutout says “donkey”; that’s a concession for any beleaguered Sunday School teachers who would otherwise have to contend with the continual readings of rapscallious eight year-olds eager for a language loophole) represent Jews and Gentiles, respectively. The Ox, a cloven-hoofed creature that chews cud, is clean by the legal standards, a Jewish animal, good for eatin’ and sacrificin’. The ass, with its equid hoof, is not, and thus represents the Gentiles.
The push on the part of early Christians Peter and Paul to unexpectedly promulgate Christianity outside the confines of Judaism was a HUGE deal for the religion and for history (by permitting cultures to maintain their existing cultural practices, the belief system became hyperdisseminatable). So backdating that move symbolically to the time of Christ’s birth allows for a later staple of the Christ narrative to find presence at its beginning (there will be a couple of other examples of that exact same thing with other characters)*.
In any case, this symbolic representation of these two groups, worshipping baby Jesus in miniature, also gives us a very creative interpretation of Isaiah 1:3. The Book of Isaiah (part of the Old Testament/Tanakh) is viewed through a Christian lens primarily as it relates to Messianic Christ via prophecy, but 1:3 (“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel doesn’t know me; my people don’t comprehend”) isn’t prophetic in the least, it’s just a flowery gripe, UNLESS you assign prophecy to it after the fact once the symbols (probably purloined from the verse in the first place for art dating back as far as the 300s) are part of the story. There’s a long tradition of people of faith reinterpreting existing scripture to meet the spiritual needs of their time and the changes that their world has necessitated, and the ox and ass serve as a reminder not only of the embrace of cultural pluralism by the early church but of how sacred texts are ever-evolving things, not in their content but in how that content is perceived.
*In that tying-later-stuff-to-the-beginning vein, I’m actually really bugged that there’s not a non-canonical infant gospel in which baby Jesus spits a seed from whence grows the tree that will be used to make the cross. Come on, Gnostics, you really dropped the ball with that one. Or maybe they didn’t. Does that one exist? I hope so.
Advent Calendar Day 9: The Retinue of the Magi
We Three Kings, right? The Gospel of Matthew neither gives them number or royal status. This is one of the most widespread examples of cultural tradition taking hard root in the religious consciousness. Most folks who have studied the Bible know this, but still have no problem with the kings being a standard part of the Christmas narrative. Which (if you haven’t caught on to my leanings over the past few days) is a great thing, in my book. It’s important, I think, that religious folk recognize that much of the narrative we associate with the Bible stems from a long tradition of interpretation and addition (not even a post-Biblical thing; folks in the Bible itself do this throughout when addressing earlier scripture) rather than cold reading. The acceptance of the three kings shows that even those who subscribe to strict literalism (itself, despite protestations, built on codified interpretation) are willing to concede to scriptural divergence when properly acclimated (I’ve never known a literalist who protested the inclusion of three kings in a Nativity scene unless he or she was a hardnosed iconoclast across the board, objecting to crèches in their entirety).
So why three? Well, three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are mentioned by name, so associating each with a specific giver is as good as theory as any other, and the only one whose genesis is scripture-specific, leading to widespread acceptance in Christian circles. But there are plenty of traditions dating back to the early days of the Church that give different numbers, the most popular being twelve, accompanied by a small army of attendants, students, and guards, their movement being notable enough to require royal permission to travel through Judea, hence the court with its king, Herod the Great.
Had I not been lazy, AND unwilling to outnumber the lowly with the high-born out of concerns mentioned in the shepherds write-up, I’d have opted to make nine additional magi to accompany the kings; as it is now, I offer four, totaling the number of Magi at seven, an unpopular but existing grouping probably rooted in a misreading by 12th century college professor/theologian Peter Comestor of the histories of Josephus in which seven nobles are said to rule in a sort of loose parliamentary system in conjunction with Darius of Persia, interpreted by Comestor as wise advisors, ostensibly setting precedent for a standing council of seven magi. Since the general consensus of early theologians was that the magi were Persian, this is better reasoning than some theories, and it lets me get away with drawing five fewer magi.
Over the centuries, the assumed regional origin of the magi has slowly spread from Persia to Yemen and Babylon to ever-reaching expanses southward and eastward, encompassing Arabia, Central Africa, India, and, most recently, the Far East. Depictions of Caspar as a Southeast Asian have skyrocketed over the last decade or two, part of a longstanding tradition of using the magi to insert more ethnic diversity into the Christ narrative. Those who think that shoehorned diversity in existing narrative franchises is a recent movement are clearly ill-informed, as nativity art has been doing it for centuries upon centuries as the “world” has expanded outward.
The four here are from India, Ethiopia, China, and Persia, attempts on my part to round out the more specific regional origins sometimes assigned the magi but less in keeping with traditional representation of the three popular named kings of western tradition. Also a gifts-and-studies-laden camel, and a camel driver with a mount.