Nativity Scenes: A Broken Commandment or a Medium of Theology?

A few weeks before Christmas, my teacher gave me and everyone in my fifth grade class just enough dough to make a single Christmas ornament. Sneaky kid that I was, I went around to each of my classmates’ desks and snatched a little chunk of their dough, eventually amassing enough to make the complete nativity scene you see above.

Was My Baby Jesus a Sin?

You’d be right to accuse me of stealing from my classmates, but believe it or not there are also some who accuse me of a far worse sin: making a graven image of God. The second commandment forbade the Israelites from being like all the other nations who made idols of their gods, this lack of a physical representation of God functioned as a reinforcement of the first commandment to have no other gods.

So the question is, does the second commandment extend to “graven images” of Jesus? Are ornaments, mangers, and crucifixes – however well intentioned – sinful?

All This Has Happened Before

It turns out this question was asked long, long ago, and answered with force and eloquence in a period of church history know as the Iconoclast Controversy . During that time (from around A.D. 500-700), several church councils were held and several creeds written about whether or not it was acceptable for Christians to make images of Jesus.

The debates were much more complicated and nuanced than we have time to cover here (involving politics and veneration), but much of what was written in that era is still helpful for thinking through making images of Jesus today. One of the most powerful and definitive passages comes from John of Damascus who wrote:

When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh then you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it.

It’s the Incarnation, Stupid

What John of Damascus was saying is the day my fifth grade self made a nativity set from bootlegged dough, I was inadvertently making a radical theological declaration.

Most religions have some kind of important historical figure, but none of them are foundational to the beliefs of that faith. If another happy fat man said what Buddha said, his words would be just as helpful to a Buddhist. And anyone with rose-colored glasses could have done Joseph Smith’s job.

But Jesus is different.

He must exist for our faith to have meaning. Our hope rests fundamentally in the limitless God taking on a limited human nature. The incarnation cannot be replaced with another fat, happy baby – it must be the God-man.

The act of forming an image of Jesus, then, is a kind of replaying of the Incarnation. And anytime someone uses a medium to create an image or representation of Jesus, even if the content is horribly profane, that act recalls the truth that God took on human flesh.

The fact that we can make a baby Jesus is our theology. In a sense, the medium is a message.

Our nativity scenes are, therefore, not mere historical recreations of an event in time – they are powerful theology declarations of the uniqueness of our faith. As John of Damascus wrote, the Incarnation changes everything – even the second commandment.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

2 thoughts on “Nativity Scenes: A Broken Commandment or a Medium of Theology?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *