The Meaning of Christmas

I have a friend who is currently serving as a missionary in Northern India. I spoke to him recently about his time there — particularly about the experience of spending the holiday season in a foreign land. He told me about a church, there, that had a tradition I had never contemplated before. They had nativity plays just like everyone else, but all of the adult characters (Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, Herod, and so on) were played by grownups.

I was flabbergasted!

How could the church in India get it so wrong? Surely, they must understand that the whole point of nativity plays is that they be performed by children.

Surely, December is to be filled with fathers comforting their daughters with the reassuring words that, “Not everyone can play Mary!” and that, “The third angel really is the most important role!” Its about mothers finding squares of burlap that look convincing on the head of Joseph without being too scratchy. Its about Sunday school teachers persuading a reluctant wise man from the East that there is a subtle but significant difference between frankincense and Frankenstein.

Everyone knows that the unique charm of Christmas is lost if its taken over by adults. Don’t these people realize that while Christmas might be a story ABOUT adults, its really a story FOR children?

But the more I thought about this and the more time I spent pondering the Christmas narrative, the more I wondered, “What if there is a conspiracy going on? A conspiracy that suits almost everyone. A conspiracy that you and I — all of us — are a part of?” What might the effect be if we were to witness a nativity play performed by adults in a place like India — a place where being a Christian is to experience being a minority, and, sometimes, to find yourself in a place of physical danger? Perhaps you would begin to notice aspects of the Christmas story that would otherwise be overlooked when its all about a little donkey on a dusty road.

The Christmas story, you see, is about a displaced and suffering people (the children of Israel are living in an occupied territory).

The Christmas story is about a coercive and oppressive government (Rome is an empire which has no interest in it’s subject peoples other than extracting from them money and raw materials).

The Christmas story is about an untimely pregnancy and a farfetched story as to who the father is.

The Christmas story is about socially excluded shepherds.

The Christmas story is about genocide and in it we find a murderous tyrant, Herod — a puppet king suspended by the fragile threads of his own ego, who hears about a new king born in Israel and suddenly the knives are out and every young boy is put to the sword.

The Christmas story is about refugees and displaced populations (Mary and Joseph are forcibly relocated).

The Christmas story is about homelessness (the holy family find themselves with no place to stay in Bethlehem). I half wonder if, in the midst of their homelessness, Mary and Joseph witnessed strangers point and say, “If Joseph wasn’t so lazy and got himself a proper job, he wouldn’t be in this position.” Of course, Joseph does have a proper job, he’s just been forced out of it by the ruthless regime. But perhaps the local community in Bethlehem, isn’t interested in hearing another sob story.

And, you see, if we’re honest — truly honest — we must admit that we don’t really want to think about these realities so we share in a conspiracy that says that while Christmas might be a story ABOUT adults, it’s really FOR children. So we get children to perform our nativity plays and talk about how magical the season is.

How convenient.

How safe.

And yet, the reality is that this season has been anything but magical.

As I recall some of the headlines over the last month or so, my heart breaks: Ferguson, Eric Garner, Torture Report, Jakell Mitchell, ISIS, etc.

For some of us, our hearts grieve over tragedies that land closer to home. Over the last month I’ve had friends lose loved ones to car wrecks, parents to illness, and children to miscarriage. This Christmas, my own family will gather around my grandmother — the personification of holiness and a force of love in my life — who is in the final stages of dementia, a terrible disease that, at times, seems to be a fate worse than death.

As I ponder these things in the days leading up to Christmas, I’m reminded of my own time in Bethlehem. During my time in the Holy Land, we visited the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square — the “traditional” birthplace of Jesus. The town of Bethlehem has been a town marred by violence. During the 2nd Intifada (circa 2001) Israeli troops stormed Bethlehem. Toward the end of the fighting, several Palestinian resistance fighters sought solace in the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity. Much to Israel’s chagrin, the Catholic priests in charge of the sanctuary would not force the Palestinians out, nor would they let the Israeli soldiers in. For them, a sanctuary was to be just that…a sanctuary — a place of God’s shalom.

The Christmas story, in general, and Bethlehem, in particular, have always been a story and symbol of unrest. Mary had absolutely no desire to go to Bethlehem. It was not her hometown! Yet an emperor who she would never meet and had no knowledge of her existence issued a decree. So off she went, I imagine begrudgingly, into this foreign land. Never in her life did she think she would find herself, amidst the doubts and unbelief, about to give birth in this foreign little town of Bethlehem.

Yet it was in that time of disruption and disfunction that a Savior was born.

It was in that moment of chaos and confusion that Christ was most present to her.

This narrative so told gets closer to the heart of Christmas than your average children’s nativity play.

Christmas is only superficially about gold crowns, wobbly camels, dish towels on shepherds’ heads, and who gets to play Mary.

Fundamentally, when you are surrounded by chaos, at the mercy of cruel powers, terrified, naked, humiliated, and helpless, Christmas is a reminder that God is Emmanuel — with us — even in the midst of your personal hell. It is the reminder that God wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world but right beside you.

That’s what those mysterious words in John’s gospel mean: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  God didn’t just create us, didn’t just love us from afar, didn’t just work in history to rescue us, and strengthen us, and heal us. No! God’s real glory — God’s true nature — appears in the real, substantial, material, physical reality of Jesus among us, Jesus just like us, Jesus beside us, and beside us not just in joy and celebration but in horror, in agony, in isolation, in abandonment.

Whose hand is holding yours in the chaos, mayhem, and terror of your world?

Who is going out of their way to stand next to you?

Who has gone out of their way to make you their friend?

Who has come alongside you and faced the reality of your existence and known the grief that you thought was yours alone?

The one standing beside us, saying we are his best friend, clasping our hand and never letting go is Jesus.

The day we discover that is the best day of all.

Its Christmas day.

(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)



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