The visiting scholar asked me an interesting question. Why do Lutherans have nativity sets? Since I work as a missionary campus chaplain at a secular university, maybe I'd better set the scene more thoroughly. A nativity set is a set of figurines (sometimes small, sometimes large) depicting one or more elements of the birth of Christ. So there's usually a manger with a baby, a Joseph and a Mary figure, some farm animals, and sometimes shepherds and/or wise men who have come to visit. This visiting scholar was a Christian who had recently come to this country from China. She was intrigued by a local church which had a display of several hundred nativity sets.
The season of Advent and the prominence of the celebration of the Nativity is striking to many people. Within historic Calvinist settings, there won't be images depicting God, so they normally won't have such pieces of artwork. Many people from the more radical Reformation will avoid most elements of church history, so they might be unlikely to put an emphasis on the Nativity.
However, in Lutheran circles, because of our special theological emphasis, we're very likely to have things like nativity sets or other artwork depicting events in the life and ministry of Jesus. Unlike the Calvinist point of view and those which fragmented from Calvinism, Lutherans don't build their theology on the sovereign power of God. Rather, we focus on Jesus living and dying for you. The incarnation, then, is a really big deal.
Essentially we can recognize three basic perspectives coming from the time of the Protestant Reformation. One, generally held by those who would fall into a Zwinglian or Arminian perspective, would emphasize your responsibility to believe Jesus and follow him. Another, generally held by Presbyterians and other Calvinists, would emphasize God's sovereign desire to forgive sins for the elect. A third, held by Lutherans, is that Jesus is God with us, true man and true God so that he can live a fully human life and die a fully human death to atone for the sins of the world.
Are the other two points of view valid? The Bible clearly says we are supposed to believe Jesus and follow him. The Bible clearly shows God as the sovereign Lord of all who forgives sins. And the Bible leaves it crystal clear that Jesus is God with us. The elements of theology are true. However, the different groups of Christians start their theology in different places, so their theological buildings look different.
Back to the nativity sets, then? It's in the conservative Reformation, specifically Lutheran thought, that we find the emphasis on the incarnation. This makes our times of penitence, the seasons of Advent and Lent, specially vivid. We make a particular effort to recognize the sinfulness of sin, the fallenness of the world, and our need for a savior. Based on the incarnation of Christ, we also have a strong emphasis on the revelation of Jesus' work during the season of Epiphany, after Christmas and before Lent. Because we are focused on Jesus as God with us, during the Christmas and Easter seasons, we will have glorious depictions of Jesus, true man and true God, who was born for us, died for us, and lives for us. We will also pay special attention to the timeline of the ordinary season, between Easter and Advent, as we walk through the different elements of the Christian life in our Scripture readings. Jesus, God with us, has walked through just the same kind of things.
In the end, Lutherans focus on the incarnation. It's not about us, nor about a distant and theoretical view of God, but about Jesus, God with us.
That's why we looked at a few hundred nativity sets together. Jesus, the real God, was really born to save us.
Pastor Dave Spotts serves as a missionary chaplain to the college campuses in Columbia Missouri under the auspices of Wittenberg Door Campus Ministry, a mission of The American Association of Lutheran Churches.