Like many others I know, I have grown weary of the endless sentimentality that spews forth from churches and other Christian venues at Christmastime. Sometimes the way culture and language change give us pause to think and re-evaluate. So, can we really talk about the babe in the manger? “That’s one nativity scene I’d like to see!” exclaims my comedian son.
Thankfully there have been some blogs out there that offer myth-busting reality to the season, and others that give us a more accurate re-telling of what we have come to know as the Christmas story. They help us to grow up in our belief in Christmas; to move away from the idolatry of a creche to a faith that can actually make a difference in the harsh reality of the darkest nights and most anguished days.
So, to begin with, I am especially grateful for New Testament scholars like Ian Paul and my colleague Danny Zacharias for demonstrating how a good interpretation of the NT offers a different picture of the first Christmas than what we continue to mindlessly propagate. Though we cannot know for sure, in all likelihood, Jesus wasn’t born in a barn or a cave, or in the middle of nowhere. There was no inn or innkeeper and God-made-flesh came into the world in the midst of a bustling home, in the middle of a heaving town. Right at the centre of human reality, and the daily struggles of life.
But even if Jesus was born in a family home, we should not think of a bungalow in a middle class neighbourhood. Living standards in Palestine 2000 years ago were not quite like the palatial comforts many western Christians have come to enjoy. We can’t really imagine, hard as we might try, what it was like for a very young woman without education, and little experience of life to give birth without her own family nearby, and without medical support, though there are many in the world who know this very situation too well.
So, all of those articles and songs that suggest what Mary would have thought…Mary must have felt…Mary might have done…are pure speculation. She probably didn’t think anything that we can imagine, and whatever she felt was lost with her as any of our feelings are lost at the end of our lives. She was a real person, in a real place and a real time. But that person is masked behind 2000 years of theology and medieval recreation.
Except the magnificat. That’s right. The longest passage spoken by a woman in the NT speaks not of calm, or longing, or introspection. People who struggle daily for survival have no such reflective luxury. Instead we have the raw, contextual proclamation of justice for the hungry and powerless. Dare we say, a political proclamation, or at least one with political implications. All will bow before this King. Still radical, still daring, still threatening to the powers that be. Enough to still be noticed by the Washington Post.
Mary knew she was giving birth to one who would be powerful. We know she trusted God. But we can’t know her confusion, her doubts, her pain, her acceptance. On that night, so long ago, a young woman gave birth to a baby in a crowded house, in a busy town. Soon after she and her family would be on the run, and the death of innocent children would cover the land. None of this is reflected in the nativity set on my fireplace mantle.
The Christmas story isn’t a fairy tale. It’s as real as the terror of war, the horror of abuse, the loneliness of oppression and the darkness of death. In the words of my friend Sam Chaise, “There is nothing about the true Christmas story that is sentimental and nice: it is a tough as nails, hard-fought battle for redemption that can power each of us through the brokenness and carnage of our world. [Here is] such strength, if we’d deal with the real thing.”
Am I ready to step away from the culturally-conditioned nativity, the story of sickly sweetness we sell to the world, and discover the real power of Christ for people today? I wonder what would happen if we were to consider the way we celebrate Christmas this year and ask, “What would Mary think?”
Having said all that, I’m not a Grinch. There is something worth celebrating – Christ has come! Merry Christmas everyone!
Here’s one of my favourite Christmas songs, by Joel Payne.