You have probably seen images by now that adapt the traditional Christmas manger scene to the year 2020. Some of these images have the Holy Family and shepherds practice social distancing; others have the Three Kings don masks and face shields, or bring the COVID-19 vaccine on top of their gold. Such adaptations of the Nativity scene are nothing new, of course. Sometimes, this updating is simply a way of situating the historical manger scene in a particular social context, for example, when a town in Germany well-known for its beer has a crèche that includes a brewery and people busy rolling beer barrels. There are also more theological adaptations, for example when a small cross or a crown of thorns are added to the stable walls. And in a few cases, a devil-demon is added to the side of the manger, disrupting any seeming peacefulness of the first Christmas with a pointer to the omnipresence of evil.
This year, I discovered what — for me at least — was a new figure in a crèche, although this one has ancient roots. In this particular Nativity scene (which stands outside of Cologne Cathedral), as the Three Kings approach from the left, a tall, regal woman approaches from the right, bringing her gifts to the Christ child. Her presence in this crèche is a result of a complex web of intertextuality. The regal figure is the Queen of Sheba [a region usually identified with ancient Ethiopia], who is said to have visited Solomon with a caravan full of gold, precious stones, and spices (1 Kings 10). This story is picked up in Psalm 72, where the rulers of Sheba are envisioned as coming to Israel’s King, bearing gifts. And in Isaiah 60, the promise of the dawning of God’s light includes this: “the wealth of nations shall come to you… All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense (Isa 60:5f).” No wonder that Christians, pondering these texts and their meanings in light of the Christ child, might put the Queen of Sheba into Christmas, too.
But why did she seem so remarkable to me, in the year 2020? It had nothing to do with COVID-19, and everything to do with one of the other crises that marked the year, at least in the United States. This crisis irrupted into full view when a video of the murder of George Floyd by police brutality went viral in late May, days before Pentecost. At the end of this year of racial reckoning, with far too many images of black bodies killed, there was something moving in seeing the Queen of Sheba — an African woman, tall and proud — walk toward the Christ child bringing her extravagant gifts. She spoke to me of life and beauty, and I intend to walk with her into the New Year 2021.