I probably need to begin with a disclaimer. My understanding of the nativity has changed. It is not what it used to be. I no longer see the birth of Jesus the way it is so often portrayed.
The image of sweet baby Jesus asleep on the hay has given way to a vision of God who is wide awake, present, among us, concerned and involved in every aspect of our life. A God who longs for humanity and desires that we would share and actively participate in the divine life through Jesus’ birth, has replaced my image of Mary and Joseph as calm, peaceful, and exceptionally holy spectators of the baby in a manger. That God chooses to enter into and experience the messiness of real life, my life and your life, offers me more hope than the image of a manger drenched in the warm glow of candlelight and filled with soft fuzzy animals and gentle shepherds.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not opposed to manger scenes. I just think God is calling us to a deeper way of seeing. My disclaimer is really just a description of some of the many ways in which we sentimentalize Jesus’ birth, sanitize the world into which he is born, and strip humanity of divinity. When this happens the nativity scene reveals the influence of marketing and advertising more than the power of God. Christmas then becomes a holiday in which we take a break from everyday life and escape the world rather than a holy day that remembers, celebrates, and gives thanks for God’s entry into our world and everyday life.
Jesus’ birth is more real than most of us know. It has to be because too often life is more real than we can handle by ourselves. Wherever we find authentic humanity we will find the birth of Jesus. Likewise, wherever we live or act as less than human we will find the birth of Jesus calling us back to our true selves. For it is in God that we are most truly human.
The birth of Jesus is, therefore, not limited to Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. So I want to describe to you three other nativity scenes. Beware. They are a bit different than what we are used to.
- Think about your family’s holiday gatherings and meals. Some are filled with joys and love, laughter and conversation. Others with tension and tears, arguments and hurt feelings. Surely, the holy child is born at the table of relationships.
- About a week ago photographs of the “girl in the blue bra” appeared in news reports. Her shirt had been pulled open revealing a blue bra. She was drug through the street, kicked, and beaten by Egyptian soldiers. God help us if we declare there is no room for Jesus’ birth in the manger of violence.
- I have no doubt that the one whose body and blood would feed the world was born again at 211 S. Evans St. this past Wednesday when the Uvalde Food Pantry gave away Christmas groceries to more than six hundred families.
How on earth can these be nativity scenes, a place of Jesus’ birth? You now, no doubt, understand why I began with a disclaimer. These other scenes look nothing like the manger scenes that fill our holiday cards or that sit on our tables. That’s my point. We need a larger and more real vision of Jesus’ nativity.
If Jesus is not born in these other scenes I have described; if Jesus is not born in the darkness, fears, and brokenness of our world; if Jesus is not born in the love we give and receive, in the intimacy we share, and in the beauty we create; then it makes no difference that he was born in Bethlehem.
And if that’s true then there is no hope for the woman in blue, the soldiers who beat her, the poor, or families. There is no hope for you and me. There is no hope for the world. Tonight, however, God proves otherwise. There is hope and good news. The angels sing it. The manger reveals it. Mary and Joseph hold it. The shepherds come to see it. And we, we show up to be reminded of and celebrate the hope and good news that Jesus, God incarnate, is with us. He is our hope and good news.
While the nativity is a historical event, it is not just an event in history. While Bethlehem is a geographical location, it is not just a town in Israel. Name any place in the world and you have named Bethlehem. It is in Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somalia, the United States, and Uvalde, Texas. Bethlehem is everywhere. Bethlehem is the world into which Jesus is born; the good, the bad, the ugly, the ordinary, the beautiful, the unbelievable. Bethlehem is more about life than a location.
Each one of us could talk about the Bethlehems of our lives. They may not involve a blue bra but they are just as real. They would be stories of times when we were helpless and life was fragile, times when we were lost and the world seemed to have no room for us, times when our lives and world were dominated by powers other than love, compassion, mercy. Undoubtedly, they would also be stories about love stronger than death, stories of hope that overcame despair, and stories of light that shone in our darkness.
Ultimately, they would be stories about times when life got real. More than anything else though, they would be stories of how Jesus was born anew in us; how our flesh and blood lives were the Bethlehems of Jesus’ flesh and blood birth. That birth is happening in all times, in all places, and in all people. That is the hope and good news of Christmas.“For to [us] is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
thank you for this post… over the past several years I too have noticed how the “traditional” nativity scene enjoys significance on par with other Christmas decorations. The “Baby Jesus”, in fact, has disappeared from various nativity “sets” and been held ransom like in similar “games” involving garish garden gnomes. Thank you for asking us to look beyond the manmade illusions to looking for the reality of God’s birth “… happening in all times, in all places, and in all people.”
Cynthia, as with most of my sermons I am speaking to myself as much as others. We (I) need to understand the nativity scene as a scandal rather than a decoration. The incarnation is always scandalous wherever it happens.
As one who struggles every year to get through the trivialized, commercialized season that passes for christmas in our culture, I am deeply grateful for your perspective. Now that the wrapping paper has been consigned to the trash, the churchy events completed, Frosty has melted and the Little Drummer Boy has gone back to wherever he lives for the rest of the year, I can begin to truly celebrate the mysterious miracle. These twelve holy days are a special time for me. Thank you, Mike, for being part of my life for Christmas and the rest of the year.
Thank you Ellen. I hope you encounter the “mysterious miracle” of these twelve holy days every day, day after day.