How accurate are the Nativity scenes outside our churches? 

By Jenna Marie Cooper 

Question Corner

Q: Now that the holidays are here many churches, not just Catholic, have nativity scenes on public display. In most of these, Joseph and Mary both appear to be about 25 years old or so, and with very westernized features. But wasn’t Mary much younger than Joseph -- no more than a teen when they married? And wasn’t Joseph at least 40 or so? Most importantly, shouldn't both Joseph and Mary look Middle Eastern in these scenes? (Indiana)

A: The truth is, aside from the bare-bones essentials given to us in Scripture, we really don’t have that many “human interest” biographical details about Mary and Joseph.

With respect to Mary, we know that she was born without original sin; that she was betrothed to Joseph when the angel appeared to her; that she actively agreed to be the mother of Jesus; that she perpetually remained a virgin; that she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist at the time; that she is the mother of God; that she intervened at the wedding at Cana; that she was present at the foot of the cross; that the Apostle John took her into his home; that she is the mother of the Church and was assumed into heaven.

Scripture tells us even less about Joseph. We know that he was a righteous man; who was a descendent of King David who called Bethlehem his ancestral home; and that he obeyed the instructions of an angel who appeared to him in his dreams. We also know that he was a carpenter and was the foster father of Jesus as well as one who always did the will of God. There is a beautiful litany of Saint Joseph which describes his attributes such as Chaste Guardian of the Virgin, Head of the Holy Family, Patron of a Happy Death, Terror of Demons, and Protector of the Holy Church.

We can of course also make some reasonable presumptions about Mary and Joseph based on broad historical trends and logical consideration. For instance, we can assume Mary was a very young woman based on the marriage customs of her culture at the time. And, since Mary and Joseph were from the Middle East, it’s reasonable to assume that the historical Mary and Joseph looked like other people from their region. Marian apparitions throughout the world reflect local people.

That all being said, the point of religious art and imagery is not so much to give us a perfect, historically accurate picture of events that occurred in the life of Jesus. Rather, sacred art is meant to help us better engage with and personally enter more deeply into the mysteries they represent. Because of this, it is very common for vastly different cultures throughout history to depict Mary, Jesus, and Joseph as looking like one of their own. While human interest details may leave us curious, they are not at all the central focus of our faith and the beautiful gift of what has been given to us in divine revelation. 

- - -

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].