Updated: Nov 18, 2019
This is the season when much of the world focuses on the manger (although not necessarily the inhabitant of that curious cradle), and the stable, and the gifts, and the motley company of exotically dressed wise men and rough-hewn shepherds. Marketplaces and stores are full of Christmas commodities and the churches are planning their special events, to which they hope the unchurched will come flocking and be transformed.
The ‘making of lists and checking them twice’ isn’t about naughty or nice anymore. It’s about how much is not enough, and how many shopping days are left, and whether there will be enough food to last the holiday period, and how much of 2016’s paypacket will be required to pay back the spending frenzy.
The retelling of the Beautiful Story vacillates between hackneyed snatches of Scripture that have become invisible to the naked mind by dint of their repetition, and an opportunity for Christ lovers to remember again the God who left His glory and made himself small enough to fit inside the womb of a young woman – a girl really, whose agreement to God’s bizarre plan not only changed her own future, but the future of the world.
Churches and shopping malls display snatches of verse that most appeal to the sentimental notions of the buyer, but a closer read of the events surrounding the boy in the manger show a tale far more tragic and complex than the beauty we’ve come to celebrate. Around the wonder of our hero’s story are many other lives that fared not so well.
Jesus’ early life was attended by the visits of prophetic people, those who could read the signs or see angels. Some of these had taken the road through Jerusalem, stopping to ask the local king the whereabouts of the new ruler. Understandably, Herod wasn’t too cool with the idea of a supplanter, and when his efforts to find the baby king proved fruitless, he did what every insecure and threatened despot does. He sent his henchmen to commit wholesale slaughter, murdering every toddler and infant boy under the age of three. Jeremiah spoke of this tragedy prophetically half a millennia before it happened.
Matthew 2:18 A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.
Can you imagine the epic proportions of that tragedy? It’s not your usual Christmas verse, but it belongs to the same story.
One man, just one man, the baby’s stepfather, was warned before the event. One baby, just one little boy, escaped the horrors of the terrorism that wrapped its brutality around a whole generation of male children. That one man was Joseph. His stepson was Jesus. The man who had chosen, without comprehending, to be a father to the fatherless boy, heard on his behalf all that was necessary to keep Him safe. How interesting that this privilege of hearing God for the child, so often the domain of mothers (and Mary had shown very clearly her capacity to hear God and obey) would be given to a stepdad. Only he was warned, no other parent.
The benefit of hindsight is always too late to bring rescue. At best, it can only ever explain the why of our brokennesses. The women who lost their baby boys were plunged without warning into the terror that burst into their homes, dressed as soldiers. They couldn’t have known that Herod had been presented with his worst nightmare, the loss of his throne and therefore, his entire identity. They couldn’t have known that he’d identified the birthplace and the gender of the supplanter, but not the child himself, and therefore he easily justified the wholesale slaughter of innocents. The women and families who bore the brunt of a megalomaniac’s actions could not possibly understand his reasoning.
Two thousand years later and megalomaniacs still flourish. There are still henchmen dispatched by the powerful rulers of the world to facilitate mass slaughter by gendercide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and ignoring the issues and hoping they’ll go away… to someone else’s borders.
We watch new tragedies unfolding every day as innocents lose their lives and the nightmare begins for people who have no framework from which to comprehend what has happened to their life. Even for those of us who are removed from the tragedy, cushioned and kept safe by our TV screens, grief and impotence are primary emotions…unless we can justify our choices not to identify our families with theirs.
The world has changed, but in its changing, nothing has changed at all. Murderous despots are more prevalent than ever before. While much of the world shops till they drop in shopping malls filled with artificial Christmas cheer, millions of others struggle to survive.
What does Christmas look like in the refugee camps of Calais and Greece and Manus Island? Where is the beauty of Advent in the midst of school shootings and child brides and little girls whose genitals have been mutilated beyond repair by ignorance and superstition? Maybe it looks a lot like Bethlehem in the time when the screams of the mothers filled the air as they lamented the annihilation of their babies so that Herod’s status quo could be maintained and life for his followers could keep its semblance of normality.
God help us. What will we do? How can we find a way to a new normal? What do good people do in times like this? The answer can’t be ‘nothing’.
How can we apply the message of the Christ child to the fractures of this beautiful, tragic planet? Because, in the midst of the turmoil, Christ still redeems the tragedies and the losses and the desperate broken failures of families, and sometimes the peace that passes all understanding means we have to give up our right to understand. How ironic.
Isaiah 9:6 For unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders and His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
May you celebrate your Christmas as an expression of Christ, the Hope of the world, rather than choosing to preserve your status quo.