The headlines this year read, “Christmas is Cancelled in Bethlehem.” The city of David in our day and age lies within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the Palestinian Christian leaders there unanimously decided a month ago to forgo any public celebrations due to the ongoing war in Gaza, a mere 46 miles away. According to NPR, “There’s no Christmas tree or sparkling lights in Manger Square or along the cobble-stone streets that should be bustling with foreign tourists this time of year. There will be no Christmas parade with musicians weaving through the old city’s labyrinth walkways, no Santas on street corners doling out joy to children. Instead, the main square is a simple parking lot, without a hint of holiday decoration to be seen.” As a friend of mine put it, there is plenty of room at the inn.
A Christmas Sermon on Luke 2:1-20.
There in Bethlehem the people of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church decided for their creche to place the baby Jesus among the rubble. Using broken cement and debris from a collapsed home, Jesus lays there while Mary and Joseph and the host of others peer in to see if he is okay. The minister, the Rev. Munther Isaac, says the congregation was inspired by the scenes from television of Gazan children being pulled from the wreckage. Pastor Isaac explained it in this way: “I always say we need to de-romanticize Christmas. In reality, it’s a story of a baby who was born in the most difficult circumstances and the Roman Empire under occupation, who survived the massacre of children himself when he was born. So the connection was natural to us.”
Two thousand years ago on a hillside not far from there, an angel declared to some shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And when we hear those words, we tend to relish in their comfortable familiarity. Or at least I do. I can hear them in the voice of Linus standing dead center on that stage in the Peanuts Christmas special, earnestly telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is about. So this story gets romanticized by us each year and, in the process, it becomes more tame. It becomes much easier to handle and control when we sanitize it.
Author and theologian Kat Armas suggests that this sanitization of the nativity is the result of the men who initially wrote this story, and the men who subsequently preached on and interpreted it. As she puts it, “It’s no surprise [that the men] … would glide over the messy realities of pregnancy and labor.” She continues, “Indeed, we’re told about the politics requiring Joseph to register in his hometown, about the shepherds keeping watch, and about heavenly hosts of angels celebrating, but we hear nothing of the blood, the nakedness, the primal groans, the fear, the strength and power of the human body, the first-time shrieks of new life bursting into the world.” It’s easier to skip over reality and get to the image where baby Jesus is all swaddled in Mary’s arms, and she’s all refreshed and awake with no signs of exhaustion, and has put on some make-up. Joseph himself has had time to put down some fresh straw, and the unmentioned midwife has cleaned up everything else and taken all the soiled laundry and skedaddled before the shepherds make their arrival. That’s the scene we create in our creches each year. It’s the snapshot of the Holy Family that we find on Christmas cards.
Why would we want to make it so graphic, you might be asking. Why ruin a good story with the messy reality of life?
I guess it comes down to what we think the birth of Jesus was really about. If it really is good news of great joy for all people. Or if it’s just a domesticated story to warm our hearts and fuel our economy. Because if it is truly good news of great joy for all people, then of course we want to highlight the fleshy reality of his birth. We want to draw attention to the fact that God was born into a difficult time and situation. One in which his parents were seen as pawns by those in power in the occupying government who wanted more money for their coffers. Or the harsh reality that Mary and Joseph were coming back to his extended family’s hometown and yet not a single family member could find a spare bed for them likely because Mary got pregnant before the wedding. And that the angel doesn’t head six miles southwest to Jerusalem to proclaim this good news to royalty and the important people of the day, but appears instead to the migrant shepherds who had virtually no status in that society and were working the graveyard shift. And yes, that God chose to be born to a poor couple sheltering in a barn who had to deal with the blood, the pain, and fleshiness of it all, and not to some well-to-do couple in a palatial mansion in Rome with countless servants helping them.
Jesus comes to us in the complicated, chaotic, and difficult situations of our life to bring good news. To bring salvation. To offer us hope.
Christmas is not canceled in Bethlehem or Gaza or Sudan or along our southern border or at Mass and Cass or anyplace else in our troubled world. Quite the opposite. Christ is born once more in those places where the world is hurting with the bold pronouncement that he is Emmanuel, God with us. God refusing to look away from the profane. God seeing the reality of life and offering hope. God choosing to bring good news and peace to every single human being, and especially to those who are hurting and in places of despair who have come to believe that they are forgotten by God.
And God brings that message through us. During these twelve days of Christmas, let’s choose to do at least one thing to bring hope to another human being who is hurting in our world. To choose to peer into the harsh realities that we would rather overlook, and to provide love and care. To offer through our deeds that deep love of God to those who need it most. In so doing we can de-romanticize the manger scene for ourselves just a little bit more, and see instead the profound compassion of a God who would choose this way to bring salvation to our world. For to you is born this day, in the city of David—in Bethlehem—a savior, and this is indeed good news of great joy for all the world’s people no matter where they are tonight. May it be so.