This is the second Sunday of the Advent season, the time set aside to prepare for the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a time of anticipation, and spiritual reflection.
Most years there is a Christmas Market in in front of the Rathaus (city hall) in Vienna. It is big and colorful with lots for sale. But there is more to it than just commercialism. Part of the market is the Nativity Trail, a series of 12 nativity scenes, different interpretations of the birth of Jesus.
Different artists portray that scene in different ways, but there are some common elements. There is a baby, a manger, a mother and some animals. A simple beginning to a world-changing life.
The Vienna Manger Association is a group dedicated to creating artistic nativity scenes, about 70 each year. I suspect they are very expensive if you want to buy one.
When we visited, in 2018, the theme was “Old Viennese Nativity Scenes.” Not that the nativity sets themselves were old, they were new. But they were set in the Vienna of an earlier era, rather than Bethlehem. I’m not an expert at these things, but they have a 19th century feel to them.
Bethlehem was where Jesus was born, but not where he stayed. He came to be the savior of the world, so in a way it makes sense to see Vienna depicted as his birthplace. Christ was born in Bethlehem, but the birth was for the people of Vienna, and Nairobi, Beijing, Toronto and every community on this planet. Artistic licence allows you to place the birth there also.
In Vienna each nativity display was in a separate little hut, with the sets themselves safely behind glass to protect them from the elements (and perhaps people’s fingers). I know there are ways to take pictures through glass without glare, but I think that requires using filters on my lens, filters I have never gotten around to buying. Which is why these pictures are less than perfect.
It is that time of year when the world pauses to think of a baby born in a stable and laid in a manger. At Christmas we try to recapture our innocence and become a little more childlike. We know about wars and rumors of wars, yet we still yearn for peace on earth, as unlikely as it seems.
Too often we miss the message of Christmas. I think the creators of these nativity sets have grasped one of the essentials by setting Jesus birth in Vienna instead of Bethlehem. The idea of God becoming flesh, of the divine reaching out to humanity, shows a willingness to meet us where we are.
In the first century that was Bethlehem. Today it could be Vienna, or Sulzburg, or wherever you are. The message of Christmas is that God is reaching out to me, to you, to everyone in love. How you respond is up to you.