Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas night

This afternoon, as we do every year on Christmas Eve, we put on a special children’s Christmas Eucharist called Bethlehem Bop.  The name itself probably gives away that it’s a sort of controlled chaos, I tell the Christmas story while the kids each dress up as one of the characters.  I find this so fascinating – how come even in this age of Playstation 3 and iPods do kids think it’s a good thing to wrap themselves up in dressing gowns and cotton-wool beards?  The other thing I’ve noticed over the years is that kids think it’s cooler to be a shepherd than a wise man – for some reason Joseph seems to be the un-coolest character of all – I guess kids know a supporting role when they see one – generally speaking we end up with about six Marys.  Have you ever seen the absolutely beatific look little girls get on their faces when they play Mary?  It’s as those they know that right then and there they represent the most special moment ever in the whole of human history.  Course it generally only lasts until somebody pulls baby Jesus’s head off or one of the shepherds gets poked in the eye by an angel.

I remember a colleague telling me about a more ambitious nativity play he attempted, a few years back.  This one involved a group of 13 year-olds who my friend unwisely gave carte blanche to write, direct and act in a Christmas nativity play with a 20th century flavour.  Naturally the donkeys were traded in for Holden utes and Herod’s men all wore army pants.  Mary and Joseph would eventually find a place to sleep round the back of a service station.  So this was all going to be acted out for the mainly elderly congregation on Christmas night – but nobody quite realised how far Mary had taken the realism thing.  She got a few laughs as she assured her mum and dad that she wasn’t into drugs and no, she and Joseph hadn’t been up to anything untoward – but there was a bit of a gasp in the next scene as she came on stage with an enormous cushion stuffed under her terry-towelling robe.  This Mary was pregnant!  And then it got worse – behind the BP service station Mary threw herself down on a hessian sack and pushed and screamed and most realistically assured God that it was all his fault.  The birth of baby Jesus was noisy, red-faced and loud, and the congregation clearly thought 13 year-old Mary had taken the role a bit far.

The Christmas story most of us remember, and certainly the one we generally see acted out in church nativity plays and department store windows, is the romantic version.  The version with fluffy sheep, picturesque shepherds and saintly-looking Marys.  But the point is that that’s not how it is in the Bible, and I bet that’s not how it was back then in the year dot.  And I have the feeling that the Christmas story is better news for us if we let a bit of the dirt and the mess back in.

Take the shepherds, for example, huddled round the fire taking turns to sleep and keep watch for wild animals.  Shepherds represented about the lowest rung of Jewish society, for the very good reason that they were smelly, rough, not very honest and generally drunk.  Think of them as not very well behaved bikies.  Then there’s the stable itself, and the manger which was nothing more or less than the feed trough for the animals that lived there.  Again, smelly.  Think manure and lantana rather than sweet-smelling hay.  Not quaint.  And Mary was, of course, actually and hugely pregnant, a first birth at the tender age of somewhere between 12 and 14 would have been difficult and dangerous.  I bet she really did have a few choice words for Joseph, Gabriel, and anyone else who ventured close.

In our own corner of our world, of course, the actual birth of Jesus has been just about sanitised right out of the story altogether, replaced by red nosed reindeer, Santa Claus and fake snow.  Reality obviously needs a little help.  But even when we do get around to the religious message of Christmas, it seems we don’t much like the idea of baby Jesus coming in the middle of a messy world, where shepherds drink too much and fall asleep round the fire, where animals do what animals do, and where having a baby is accompanied by blood, sweat and tears.  It’s as though we think that God’s too genteel for all of that, so even though the story in the Bible tells it like it is, we rewrite it protect the ‘niceness’ and the ‘holiness’ of God.  Like the Hollywood versions of the life of Christ where everyone speaks in those fake, portentous-sounding voices.  It’s as though deep down we feel we need to keep God separate from the realness and the messiness of our humanity.

But when we do that – when we try to keep God for Sunday best – I think we’re missing the point of what God is actually up to in the Christmas story.  I think that God chooses to be born into our world, not in spite of all our faults and foibles, but actually because of them.  I think there’s a good reason God chooses to enter the world – not in a palace or a five-star private hospital, but right in the middle of the squalor and the stink, right in the middle of the injustice and cruelty, to a family wandering homeless from one end of an occupied country to the other. And that good reason is that God has got no place better to be than right in the middle of our mess.

And here’s another thing.  Jesus’ birth into this world is also a death sentence.  In the very next section of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s going to hear old Simeon’s not so encouraging prophecy, this child is destined for greatness and for conflict, he says, and oh, yes, a sword is going to pierce your own heart.  In Matthew’s version of the story we hear that Herod the king is so threatened by the birth of a possible rival that he slaughters all the babies in the district of Bethlehem.  Jesus enters a world of idealism and cynicism, a world of messy politics, of violence and religious extremism.  And I guess we all know the end of the story?  I guess we all know that Jesus grows up only to be executed on a Roman cross.  And this I think is the whole point.  The God who enters our world of pain and suffering doesn’t hold anything back.  God completely immersed in the mess of human feelings, human uncertainty, failure.  The whole ambiguous and complicated mess of selfishness and beauty, failure and self-sacrifice, competitiveness, love and self-doubt.

I think one of the greatest tragedies of Christianity is that for century after century we have held onto the picture of a distant and judgemental God as though it was the answer to a world torn by conflict and an over-abundance of certainty.  As though a God hell-bent on condemning everyone and anyone who didn’t look holy enough or miserable enough could ever make humanity more loving!  But the story of Christmas tells us plainly that that’s not what God’s like, not in the slightest.  Christmas tells us that the God of creation is not distant but intimately connected to all of creation. Christmas tells us that God becomes so vulnerable in the act of creation itself, and falls so foolishly in love, that when what has been created becomes fractured and broken God can think of nothing better to do than to creep in alongside.  Seeing God become one of us in the middle of the dirt and grime and the very human stuff of pregnancy and childbirth, we start to get, I think, the true picture of God as the one who is not distant but ever-present, not judging us but companioning us through the circumstances of our own lives.  God who loves us, so to speak, from the inside out.

And I think when we do start to see God like that, we also begin to get a different perspective on what our own lives are about.  If God is for us, no matter what, then who are we for?  If God is not just for us, but also for homeless nobodies like Mary and Joseph, or for unimportant shepherds on a lonely hillside, or for mothers mourning for their lost children in Bethlehem – then who are we meant to be for?  Because God is for all people, for people who live in fear rather than faith, people who lose their homes or their children in tsunamis, for African children orphaned by AIDS, even for wealthy Western men and women who live as though they can’t see the homeless or the unemployed in their own communities.  God is for all of us.  And so the Christmas message invites us to open our eyes and our lives, to live not just for ourselves but for others, and to believe that God’s power is greater than all the powers that be.

In the end, I think, that 13 year-old Mary got it about right.  In the end, what really matters when we hear the Christmas story tonight is that we understand it, not as a cute and romantic story, but as the stuff of real life.  That we hear God saying to us, ‘I’m with you.  Right when life is at its most confusing, its most painful.  Right when things are falling apart.  I’m with you, and I’m for you.’



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