Those of you who know me in person likely know that I hate, hate, hate sentimental portrayals of the Christmas story. I can’t stand Christmas pageants (even as a kid I thought they were drivel whose only function was to let the grannies fawn over us — and yes, I was a strange child) and cannot abide the insipid melodies and lyrics of “Away in a Manger” or “Silent Night.” My irritation at these sugar-plum visions of the Christmas story is even stronger this year than most, for obvious reasons. Christmas 2020 is for most of us a strange and muted celebration at the end of an anxious, exhausting, and messy year. Nothing about this year has been “all is calm, all is bright,” and I don’t think an “all is calm, all is bright” Christmas has anything to say to us this year. The last thing the world needs is a placid and inert “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
Thankfully, the Christmas story we find in the Scriptures is not the version we hear in Christmas pageants and Romantic-era carols. Far from being sweet and sentimental, the picture of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels is a chaotic, messy, smelly, and altogether human scene, more reminiscent of the evening news than a Hallmark holiday movie.
Both Luke and Matthew situate Jesus’ birth in the midst of global politics, albeit in different ways. Matthew’s story is full of political intrigue, violence and espionage: Foreign dignitaries arrive in Jerusalem to pay homage to Judea’s new king, only to discover that no one in the palace knows anything about it. This sets off a chain of events that ends with King Herod ordering the slaughter of all the male babies in Bethlehem and Jesus’ family fleeing the country in the dead of night to live as refugees in Egypt. By contrast, Luke’s scene is almost laughably caught up in the monotonous but unstoppable machine of government administration. It begins with a list of overlapping political leaders and jurisdictions that demonstrates Judea’s strange status a poor, backwater, client kingdom under the thumb of the rising Roman Empire. And Luke sets the story during a mass migration of people — not in pilgrimage for a major feast or escaping war or famine, but for (of all things!) a census so they could all be properly taxed. Whether through the high drama of Matthew or the mundane bureaucracy of Luke, both stories go out of their way to show that the people of God generally, and Mary and Joseph specifically, are caught up in the mess of the world and its Empires.
But the messiness plays out on the smaller, human scale too. Rumours swirl around the legitimacy of Mary’s child. Were it not for Joseph’s good faith and honour, she could easily have been cast aside (or even killed) for her apparent lack of chastity, and her child forever marked as a social pariah as a bastard. And in Luke’s telling of the story, when the family arrives in Bethlehem and it’s time for Jesus to be born, they have to bunk with the livestock because their hosts have no room for them. These personal concerns may have lower stakes than the political concerns, but they were very real — and far more pressing in the moment for Joseph and Mary.
And so the Christmas story is a messy story in a messy world.
But it is also Good News for a messy world.
For this messy world of heavy-handed politics and everyday human dramas is the same world that “God so loved,” the world into which the Christmas story tells us God, Creator and Lord of the universe entered, for us and for our salvation.
This is the Good News that warrants triumphant shouts from the angelic armies; the Good News written in the heavens for those who have eyes to see, to read and to follow; the Good News that causes both foreign dignitaries and outcast shepherds to drop everything and investigate:
To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger… Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours! (Luke 2.11-14)
What is God’s Good News for this messy world? A baby — a baby of questionable parentage born among livestock to a poor family from the backwater of the world’s backwater, in a small village that was, while only eight kilometres from Jerusalem, a world away from everything that city stood for. A baby we call “God-with-us,” the full, perfect revelation of God in this messy world.
This baby would usher in a new way of being in the world. Taking on the mantle of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of God’s heart, he proclaimed freedom to captives, healed the sick of heart, mind, and body, fed the hungry. He blessed the poor, the grieving, the crushed, and the persecuted. He welcomed outcasts and sinners. In every interaction, in every thought and action, he revealed God’s heart to the world. For his heart was God’s heart.
The miracle of the incarnation means that for us Christians, this is not simply a metaphor. The human heart that beat in the infant Jesus’ chest was by some unfathomable mysterious means God’s heart. His eyes were God’s eyes. His fingers were God’s fingers. His feet were God’s feet. His tears were God’s tears.
And so, I am convinced that “the little Lord Jesus” did cry, like the human child he was. A baby Jesus who doesn’t cry is like the false prophet crying “Peace! Peace! where there is no peace.” No, the baby Jesus cried, and he cried with the full force of God’s loving, gracious, fierce, grieving heart. The baby Jesus cried when he was hungry, even as God-with-us cried for all the world’s hungry. He wailed when his mother put him down, even as God-with-us wailed for all those who wail at the loss of their loved ones’ touch. He screamed in frustration when he was learning to crawl, even as God-with-us screamed on behalf of all those struggling to make their way in a harsh world. He cried when he fell and scraped his knee, even as God-with-us cried for all the world’s pain and sorrow.
Into the mess of our world, God’s Good News is God’s very own presence, feet on the ground, hands in the dirt, heart in the ashes.
This is the miracle of Christmas.
I don’t know about you, but this version of the story seems far more fitting this year than the sanitized and sentimental fare that is so commonly served up this time of year. We live in a messy, infuriating, heartbreaking world, but we are not alone. For once and for all, now and for ever, God is with us. God is with us and God is to us and God is for us.
Glory to God in the highest heaven! And on earth peace.
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