Thoughts on Luke 2:1-20.
Have you ever watched those movies from the sixties where they would soften up the edges of the leading actress — someone like Doris Day or Grace Kelly — on close ups? It seems to me that we’ve done something similar with Christmas. I believe our pictures of the holy family are softened, maybe even sepia-toned in their depiction of all that is seen as lovely and fair. We see Mary in her blue robe gazing lovingly at her glowing newborn, Joseph attentive to both of their needs, shepherds gazing on in wonder, puffy white balls of cotton in the background, and rays of angels’ glory streaming in through the windows of the well swept stable with the soft music of “Joy to the World” playing in the background. Which don’t get me started on the theology of Christmas carols. But a funny article that was printed by the Huffington Post can be found here.
That paints a pretty nice picture, beautiful even, and I cherish it probably as much as or more than the next person. However, who are we kidding? Of course it wasn’t like that. We’ve domesticated the picture beyond nearly all recognition. If you’ve ever had the experience of working on a farm, you can probably imagine the stench that accompanied Jesus’ birth. Not very pleasant, huh? And speaking of birth, if you’ve ever spent anytime in a hospital or have been anywhere near the labor room, you know that giving birth isn’t all meek and mild. The teenage Mary was probably frightened, Joseph probably felt like he was in way over his head. And the shepherds? These guys were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs on the socio-economic ladder.
Now, we’ve all probably heard realistic re-tellings of the Christmas story before and perhaps have heard them used to heighten the sense of the hearers appreciation for the depths of God’s love poured out into the incarnation. Which this is all fine and good, but it’s not what I’m interested in just now. Actually, I’m more curious about why we prefer the photoshopped picture of the nativity in the first place.
I have a feeling that we do this because life is hard enough already. Do you know what I mean? On a daily basis we struggle to keep our pretty turbulent lives in tact, to stem the tide of chaos that too often threatens to overwhelm us at home or work or in the world at large. We’ve had enough “realism” in the news, thank you very much. With our lives all a hot mess, can’t we at least come to church for a vision of something that is inherently and undeniably good, pure, and beautiful?
I actually believe this to be a pretty understandable request. We put a lot of time and energy into managing things, controlling as many of the variables of our twenty-first century lives as possible, and frankly we are nearly worn out by the effort. Little wonder we come to church wanting not just a respite from the frantic page of everyday life, but something more. Something comforting and comfortable, something that we prefer to be warm, cozy, and inspiring. So we devour Luke’s nativity scene like it’s a kind of spiritual comfort food, chicken noodle soup for the beleaguered soul.
Except that this isn’t Luke’s nativity scene. Luke knows something about wanting to order chaotic lives too. In fact, the story that Luke tells just begins here, naming upfront the rulers of this world who are responsible for maintaining and enforcing, the Pax Romana. Luke sets his story up amid a census, the act of ordering — that is, registering, counting, and taxing everyone. Yet this is only part of the background story for Luke. The main action takes place elsewhere, on the fringe, far away from the centers of power, in a little backwater town called Bethlehem, where a scared young girl and her equally scared husband can’t find any decent place in which to birth their first child and so they are now forced to take refuge with animals and with only dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep to notice.
Why exactly does Luke tell his story this way? In an even bigger question, why does God do it this way? I actually think that this whole story is an indictment of the order, an accusation against things as they are. Do you know what I mean? Putting it another way, I believe that by playing out this redemptive story on the fringe of things, just where you would least expect God to be, God is telling us that the way things usually are just isn’t good enough. It’s almost like God is trying to whisper to us something that deep down we already know, but are afraid to admit, even to ourselves. These lives we’ve so carefully created, this world that we work so hard to manage, are beautiful, precious, and wonderful… but also vulnerable, fragile, and ultimately insufficient.
Even the best of lives is filled with measures of regret and disappointment, and if we take even just a moment to gaze around us we see how many lead lives that are difficult, painful, and all too short. God comes not at the center of the world to straighten things out a bit, but on the fringe to call the orders and structures of the day into question and herald a new beginning altogether. Ultimately, Luke’s story — if we are willing to listen to it and give it a chance — witnesses to the simple yet scary fact that God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better, even a little more bearable. God came to turn over the tables, to create a whole new system, to resurrect and redeem us rather than to merely rehabilitate us.
This is scary to us because we’ve invested a lot in our lives as they are and it can be down right frightening to give up what we know. At the same time it’s also thrilling because this promise speaks to a place deep down inside each of us that wants something more than a better job or higher income. Something more than a more comfortable home or enjoyable retirement. These things may all be good, but they don’t save us. Often enough, they don’t even satisfy us for long. No. We desperately want a sense of meaning and purpose, we desire to believe that there is more to this life than meets the eye. We need to hold onto the hope that despite all appearances we are worthy of love.
God comes at the edges of this story and our lives to speak quietly but firmly through the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor pains of a young mother and cry of her infant that God is irreconcilably for us. Joined to our ups and downs, our hopes and fears, and committed to giving us not just more of the same ol’ thing, but something more. Christ comes not just to give us more of the life we know, but new and abundant life altogether. Because in Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and we have all heard the good news that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” No wonder we sing, “Let heaven and earth rejoice!”