I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card. Mom and dad certainly had their standards. It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests. I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.
Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day. There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary! Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.
Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it? What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be. You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality. It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.
I think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem. Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church. But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8). But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger. No, that was in the fields outside of town. The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.
In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession. And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation. And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.
We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36). Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer. The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice. We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did. And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.
In ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm. Their meat kept people fed. And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice. And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb. That was your money maker. His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.
In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4). This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal. And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.
Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.” Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image. That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +