The Nativity depicted in movies, children's plays and art often portrays idyllic characters and sentimental scenes. Many key characters are not even represented. Are we in danger of romanticizing the Christmas story? Can we learn fresh insights by looking at this unique cast of biblical characters? Six writers examine the key players in the birth of Jesus.

Mary by Major Cathie Harris

Joseph by Colonel Ricardo Bouzigues

Shepherds by Pamela Richardson

Wise Men by Major Glenda Bishop

Herod by Major Mark Wagner

Simeon and Anna by Donald E. Burke



Her figurine sits in the Nativity scene, so still, with a slight smile, watching over her newborn baby. Mary, mother of Jesus, seems so passive and serene. We may hardly give her more than a passing thought. But do not be deceived. There is a strong young woman of faith behind that figurine.

We meet Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. She is a young woman engaged to be married. This is nothing out of the ordinary. But an angel from God appears to her, calling her favoured one and saying, “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28 NRSV). Her reaction tells us this wasn't an everyday occurrence. She was “much perplexed” (Luke 1:29 NRSV) and began pondering its meaning. It would seem that Mary was a ponderer by nature as we watch future events unfold. Into those moments of wondering the angel spoke startling words: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32 NRSV). Talk about unusual news coming out of the blue! But Mary was not timid. She spoke right up to the angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NRSV).

The angel responded but didn't really explain much. This was still a great mystery. But in those moments, Mary made a momentous decision. She did not sit back on her heels and say “whatever … ” but rather spoke strong words—words from a deeply held faith in the God of her ancestors: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 NRSV).

You see, Mary is not a passive figurine in a Nativity scene. She chose to become an active participant with God in his work of ongoing salvation. It was a costly decision. She faced public disgrace and a possible break-up with Joseph. How was he to understand her pregnancy? Being a righteous man, Joseph continued to love and protect Mary. But due to circumstances beyond their control, they had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the final months of her pregnancy. She went through labour and delivery in a stable because there were no rooms in the inn. These were less than ideal circumstances even for those times.

Mary could not have known what being the Lord's servant would mean for her. God called and she chose to say yes. Being God's servant means active participation. It is more than showing up for worship services and committee meetings. It is more than agreeing with stated Christian beliefs. It is actively pondering, actively questioning and actively following.

So don't be deceived by idyllic Nativity scenes. There's a lot more going on inside those characters than you might think.



“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Here, the gospel writer shows one of the most difficult and constant spiritual trials that Christians face in life. It is the struggle between social pressure and conscience: doing what most believe is right or what we ourselves believe is just.

Here we see Joseph's dilemma. He was engaged to Mary—that is, he had sealed the pact with the bride's family by paying a dowry, completing the bridal commitment that in Hebrew society established a permanent bond and forced them to full fidelity. They were waiting, perhaps several months, to fulfil the date set for the wedding ceremony, which culminated when the husband took his bride to live at his home.

In the interim “she was found to be with child” and she told Joseph that it was “through the Holy Spirit” (v 18). But can you imagine the consternation of Joseph? Could he believe Mary? As he knew it was not his child, he could only suppose that his fiancée had been unfaithful to him—which was considered adultery.

If Joseph wanted to be obedient to the law, he should disown Mary so that she would be put on trial—almost certainly being condemned to death by stoning. Because he loved her and listened to his heart, Joseph decided to divorce Mary without specifying the reason, so as not to expose her socially. But this did not resolve the tremendous struggle that Joseph was experiencing.

In a dream, an angel confirmed Mary's version of events and revealed the essential role to be played by Joseph according to God's plan: to continue with the wedding and to name the child Jesus. Naming the child meant Joseph adopted him as his son, giving him all legal rights―and thus, the child begotten by the Holy Spirit would be the son of David.

When we find ourselves in a dilemma, let us act out of love and ask God for direction. He is not only interested in helping us, but may also permit us, as he did Joseph, to participate in his plans to bless others in a way we could not forsee. God may surprise us this Christmas!

Courtesy of Words of Life.



It was probably a night like all the rest. Sunlight had given way to darkness and the heat of the day had slipped away. Except for the occasional bleating of sheep and the murmured voices of their shepherds, all was quiet. The only source of heat and light was a small campfire that helped to keep wild animals away from the treasured flock. It was just another peaceful and uneventful night in the fields surrounding the town of Bethlehem. And then it happened. An angel appeared, shining in the light of God's glory, and scared the poor shepherds half to death. Is it any wonder that Luke 2:9 says “they were terrified”?

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). And before the shepherds could get their hearts back to a normal rhythm, “a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests' ” (Luke 2:13-14).

For generations, the Israelites had been waiting for the coming of the Messiah. His birth was not just good news; it was big news as well! The only people who knew about his arrival, however, were Mary, Joseph and the group of shepherds who had just received the news.

Shepherds were near the bottom of the social standings of their time. Did they wonder why they were chosen above everyone else, including the religious elite? Were they afraid no one would believe them? Perhaps, but they did not allow their questions or fears to control them. Instead they responded with an immediate acceptance of the news, journeyed to the humble manger where Jesus lay and then spread the word of what they had seen and heard (see Luke 2:15-17).

Most people will admit they are afraid of something. Childhood anxieties about such things as monsters under the bed usually diminish as we become adults, but they can be replaced by fears that don't go away as easily. Perhaps you are afraid of becoming sick or losing a loved one. Unemployment and economic hardship may scare you. Do you worry what others think of you? Maybe your knees shake at the thought of sharing the good news of the Messiah's birth with a neighbour.

Psalm 55:22 offers some great advice for handling fear: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you….” You may be thinking, “It's not as easy as that.” I agree, but as people who believe in the saving power of our Messiah, we can rest easier knowing we are not travelling through life alone.

Take time this year to attend a Christmas pageant, one with angels wearing garland halos and shepherds dressed in bathrobes. As you watch them retell the story of what happened so many years ago in Bethlehem, reflect on your fears and then lay them down beside the manger.



Marketing companies spend thousands of dollars trying to grab our attention and promote a product or brand, particularly at Christmastime. And yet thousands of years ago, when God announced the greatest event of all time that very first Christmas, he didn't use methods of worldly lavishness. He did something far greater and more spectacular.

The birth of this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger in a stable behind some inn in an obscure Judean town, was trumpeted by heavenly angels. Then months later, when God wanted to let the nations of the world know that a king had been born, one who would turn their previous religious traditions and belief systems upside down, he used a star in the sky.

We are awestruck, but not surprised at the origin of the first “announcer” of the birth of the Christ Child, who is described in the Matthew and Luke accounts as “an angel of the Lord.” However, what is intriguing is the origin of the second announcement. Months later, Magi from the East arrived to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews,” having followed a star (see Matthew 2:2).

So much has been speculated of the spiritual background and depth of these Magi, commonly known as Wise Men, learned men interested in dreams, astrology, magic and books pertaining to mysterious references to the future. We have to surmise that they studied and knew the God of the Old Testament passages and were aware of the prophecies and signs surrounding the coming of the Anointed One (see Daniel 9:25) and the timing of his birth. Perhaps these men came to Bethlehem having been spurred on by astrological calculations, coupled with God's Holy Spirit prompting their minds to anticipate what they were looking for in the heavens: a star. Given the religious, pagan practices of the eastern nations, they could quite possibly have been restless in their religious experience, yearning for something more and looking for signs of the arrival of this infant king.

Whatever the background and reason for their obedience to follow that star, the Magi remind us that there are many in our world today—of all cultures, faith backgrounds and lifestyles—who need a “star.” There are many who are restless and who need a star to point them to the One who will bring meaning to life that goes way beyond themselves.

As Christmas comes again this year, may we be reminded that we are called, as those who worship Christ, the newborn king, to be “stars”: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.' Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life … ” (Philippians 2:14-16 NIV).

May we each choose to love him more and shine brightly so that we can lead people to Jesus.



I recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. There I saw a famous painting by the old master, Peter Paul Rubens, called The Massacre of the Innocents. It is a truly horrible painting to contemplate.

When we see Syrian mothers weeping over the bodies of their children we are reminded of the slaughter of the innocents. When we try to imagine the deaths of millions of babies in the womb each year in North America, we mourn the bloodbath of the unsuspecting.

Rubens' masterpiece commemorates a crime perpetrated by King Herod, which is recorded in Matthew's Gospel.

Herod ruled from 47 to 4 BC. (A second Herod, his son, became tetrarch of Galilee and later murdered John the Baptist.) The old man shows up at the beginning of the Gospel.

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1 ESV).

Out of scant biblical references and some historical records, a portrait emerges of a Machiavellian ruler in ancient Israel:

Herod was feared. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3 ESV). Does the phrase “all Jerusalem” mean they were merely worried that he was worried, or did he actively make his displeasure known through malevolent threats?

Herod was wily. “Then Herod summoned the Wise Men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared” (Matthew 2:7 ESV). A shrewd politician, smooth with Roman authorities, he knew how to get answers. Jesus referred to Herod's son the tetrarch as “that old fox.” Did Herod's son pick up that characteristic from his crafty father?

Herod was ruthless. The thought of a rival king left him in a rage. Nothing would stop him from protecting his turf. And so, the slaughter of the innocents. “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16 ESV).

God uses whom he pleases to do his will, but he is always in control. Of the cruel Assyrian conquerors he said, “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it …?” (Isaiah 10:15 ESV).

The Lord prophesied Jesus would come out of Egypt—where he fled to escape the slaughter. He used the faithful Magi and these cruel circumstances in the unfolding of his unstoppable will.

Today we mourn massacres of innocents knowing that one day justice shall prevail. The horrors of this fallen world will one day be halted. Power corrupts but absolute power is wielded with perfect justice in the hands of the Holy and Righteous One.



In Luke's Gospel, the story of Jesus' birth is filled with people who could easily have been overlooked. There is no mention of King Herod, no Wise Men—no VIPs. There are just the humble, the poor and the marginalized, those who can bring only their praise and obeisance to the infant Son of God. Simeon and Anna fit nicely into this assembled cast (see Luke 2:25-38).

The first thing we need to note is that while Anna is introduced immediately after Simeon's encounter with the holy family, there is nothing in Luke that suggests there was any connection between the two. This stands in contrast to Zechariah and Elizabeth who, as the parents of John the Baptist, obviously were married. Simeon and Anna have no such close association even if we are accustomed to reading their story as though they do.

Second, we tend to think of Simeon as an elderly man. But once again, a careful reading of the biblical text shows that there is no basis for this assumption. Simeon may be middle-aged or younger.

What we are told about Simeon is that he lived in Jerusalem, he was righteous and devout, he was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah and the Holy Spirit was with him. Simeon had no religious credentials—he was not a priest or a prophet. But it was the Holy Spirit who directed him to go to the temple at the time of Jesus' dedication.

Taking the baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon broke out in praise of God, proclaiming that he was now satisfied that he had seen the one who would bring God's salvation to the world. Then Simeon blessed the child's parents and proceeded to prophesy that this child was destined to bring judgment upon the people and that a sword would pierce his parents' hearts.

For Anna, on the other hand, we are given more biographical information. She had been married for seven years and then was widowed for many more. Now 84, she had lived well beyond the normal lifespan at her time. Anna is described as a prophet who never left the temple, fasting day and night.

Our first impulse would be to think that Anna was an especially devout woman. But never leaving the temple may have simply been a matter of survival. Widows were among the most vulnerable in a patriarchal society. Without a male to provide for them and give them standing in the community, many women in her situation would have had to enter the sex trade in order to survive. But there was little chance that this option existed for Anna at her age. Therefore, her residence in the temple may have been partly due to her devotion and largely out of necessity.

But even if this is all true, Anna still found room to praise God, to see in this child more than was apparent to most.

Many saw Jesus in the temple that day, but it was a faithful man and an elderly widow who recognized a Saviour. Simeon and Anna illustrate the fact that often it is those whose lives are uncluttered by the trinkets and baubles of material wealth and power who have eyes to see Jesus and open their hearts to him.

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