He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.
- John 1: 11
There is no disagreement that we have commercialized & sanitized Christmas to the point of not being able to recognize it. Take the Christmas card image of the nativity. It is usually a scene of angelic choirs, a babe in a manger, Mary & Joseph in clean clothes, humble sweet shepherds with well-scrubbed & properly posed animals, & richly dressed Wise Men with fabulous gifts. The scene may look like a Radio City Hall production, but it is not an accurate portrayal of the first Christmas.
To begin with, the shepherds were the dregs of the earth, people who couldn’t find a better job. On the whole, they were conniving thieves. Then there were the Magi, certainly wise men of a sort, but not Jews but outsiders. Mary & Joseph were not models of physical perfection, like Barbie & Ken, but poor peasants of the countryside who wore travel-worn, dusty, dirty clothes. The stable animals were not sanitized, & people had to walk around their droppings. Bethlehem was not Greenwich, Ct., but a scruffy village of no account. The manger? We are not talking about a nice crib from Toys R Us, but a feeding station for animals. In dressing up the Nativity story to look like a set designed by Disney, we miss the point of the incarnation.
And just what is that point? It is that God came into & among human existence with all its limitations & flaws. Christmas is a potent sign of God’s desire to embrace our brokenness. Among us, not some paid actors in a play; among us, nasty untrustworthy people like the shepherds, outsiders like the Magi, the different, the out-of-step folk, the poor peasant parents that smelled from the journey. The setting is no accident, because that is why God came into our lives: to nourish our brokenness, to feed our hungry souls. Christmas truly shows us love among the ruins of our lives.
The big question is Why do we allow ourselves to fall for the commercial sentimentality of this season, when God made incarnate in Jesus echoes Dostoyevsky’s words: “Love is a harsh & dreadful thing.” Harsh is being born among the scum of the earth, & dreadful is dying naked on a cross with holes in your body.
The truth is God lives all year long among us. But often, in practice, we deny it. We think we are beyond His concern, His care, His love. We array Jesus in royal trappings & place Him high atop a stage setting under strobe lights. This makes us think that He is removed from our shepherd lives, & so we do not experience His care & embrace. How can we think this about a God who ached so badly to be among us that His first audience was the dregs of society?
It comes down to this: if you look to the media & popular culture, there is no way you will find anything other than a tinseled tableau of the first Christmas. But gathered in a faith community, where Jesus still humbly comes in the spoken word & in a small piece of bread, we know He is here for the shepherds, the outcasts, the failures. In Christmas, He has fulfilled His desire to be near us, to be with us.
Remember, Christmas is not a tableau in a store window. Christmas is the celebration of the Word made flesh, our flesh. It is the celebration of Love among the ruins of our lives. AMEN!