Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Dark Side of Christmas

This is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” We’ve heard Luke’s story so often, we don’t see how sad it is. In fact, it’s the sad parts of the Christmas story that we try to hide, shielding our eyes from the unpleasant realities of Jesus’ birth. Instead, Christmas cards render idyllic portraits that are far removed from the biblical story: landscape scenes of cabins covered with snow, horse-drawn sleighs, animals frolicking in the snow—not only reindeer, but also chipmunks, raccoons, cardinals, and cute gray mice. Even when we consider the biblical narrative, we prefer to see the birth of Jesus as a quaint, country story about sheep and shepherds, peace and goodwill, angelic hosts and a guiding star. Actually, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is a very dark story. A Palestinian census meant Roman taxes. Caesar’s pax Romana cost money, and poor imperial subjects were going to foot the bill whether they liked it or not. The fact that Joseph couldn’t find shelter for Mary in his hometown reveals that no family would take him in due to the shameful circumstances of their predicament. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what he assumed we would already know: Joseph was shunned by his family when he came home with a pregnant fiancĂ©. Neither a guestroom nor a public house was made available to the dishonorable couple. Probably born in a cave, Jesus would be cradled by a feeding trough. In Luke’s version there are no magi, no gifts of gold, frankencise, or myrrh. No midwife. No family celebration. All alone, in the middle of the night, Joseph and Mary welcomed a baby boy into the world. This is a dark story, indeed.

Piercing the darkness of Bethlehem was the angelic announcement of Messiah’s birth. Humble circumstances give way to dramatic events that break through the narrative with divine force. Luke employs powerful poetry to deliver a theme that will dominate his gospel: heaven crashes into earth and only the lowly see. The angel seemed to bring good news tailored for dirty shepherd boys. “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is your sign: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.” All newborns were wrapped in strips of cloth, mummified to keep them warm. There was nothing significant about that. The special sign for shepherds was that they would find their Messiah in a feeding trough. There is something very appealing about shepherds gathered around a manger to see the Messiah that was born for them, as if they were tending the Lamb of God.

“Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Jesus probably grew up hearing stories about his birthday. Traveling for a census, angels visiting shepherds, and good news found in a manger—bending toward nostalgia, the blending of common details and extraordinary events made the story of Jesus’ birth evermore endearing to poor people who counted on the mercy of God. Listening to his family relive the circumstances of his birth, Jesus knew what he was born for. Redeemed by poor parents with a turtledove instead of a lamb, Jesus was destined to be good news for those who have nothing. He knew he was heaven’s gift of the poor to the poor. The lowly are exalted, the humble honored because the Messiah was born in David’s hometown to poor pilgrims from Nazareth. It makes perfect sense: as David’s heir, Israel’s king should be visited by shepherd boys. “He was one of us,” the shepherds could say. He was born for them. That’s why their story wouldn’t be told with descriptions of royal palaces and rich furnishings. Instead, Jesus came into the world under conditions that only a shepherd could appreciate. Indeed, we all know that good tidings of great joy comes to all people because the gospel came first to boys who tended sheep and found their Messiah in a feeding trough.

He became one of us.