‘Tis the season for decorations, special music, (virtual) gatherings, gifts, parties, and…nativity scenes. Representations of the circumstances of Christ’s birth appear as ornaments, in church plays, and on lawns. Although we don’t know the details of this momentous event: We don’t know if Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or even in the stone tower known as Migdal Eder. But we often find it helpful to imagine them so that our minds have something of substance to ponder.
Of course nativity scenes feature the baby Jesus with His mother Mary and human father Joseph. Usually included is a donkey that may have accompanied Mary and Joseph from Nazareth and often a cow and a lamb. It is a warm, rural scene that emphasizes the contrast between the glories of heaven and the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth and earthly life.
There is one animal that is consistently and remarkably absent from our nativity scenes. We never see a snake. Modern-day Israel is home to over forty species of snakes, and ancient Israel no doubt had a robust population. It is not in the least unreasonable to speculate that a snake was present at the birth of Christ.
But it is not a generic snake that is in question here. It is the serpent of old, Satan in the Garden of Eden, whose presence deserves our consideration. After Satan, in the form of a serpent/snake, tempted Eve and provoked her to disobey God and initiate the fall, God pronounced judgment upon all involved. His judgment upon Satan included a promise of redemption for Adam and Eve and their descendants—the Seed of Eve would crush the serpent’s head even as he would bruise this Seed’s heel.
And so even though we do not know if there was an actual snake at the birth of Christ, the serpent of old plays a prominent role in this drama. His presence—literally or metaphorically—reminds us that the wondrous birth of Christ is a scene set in the battlefield of Good versus evil, of sacrifice and suffering to defeat the serpent, to purchase redemption, and to reclaim eternity for those who believe.