Christmas Eve, 2012
Messing up Christmas
Caroline’s confirmation class was doing a pageant entitled, “What if Jesus were born today?” Caroline had volunteered to be Mary.
In preparation, the confirmation class had to do some research and creative interpretation of the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. They determined that today, Mary and Joseph would be a homeless couple traveling to a new home with all of their belongings in a shopping cart. There would be no “donkey” for Mary to ride as in the Bible, so they chose a rusty 1969 Chevy Impala for that task. There would be no room for Mary and Joseph at the Motel Six, and no hospital in “Hicksville” where they would settle, but a temporary room was found them in the back of a barn. Caroline and her friends started to really get into this.
But Caroline felt that there were further details of the story neglected by the previous pageants. She made plans to correct those, hoping she wouldn’t offend the good people of her congregation. She made her secret plans and carried them out without anyone noticing. She looked radiant during the scene in which an angel appears on her television screen to announce that she would have a baby. She cried appropriately when she had to tell Joseph, her fiancé, what was going on, and cried again when he informed her that he loved her anyway and would still marry her. Then, as the scene changed, she disappeared backstage to prepare for the “journey and birth” portion of the play.
When she emerged for the final scene, walking slowly with Joseph, she brought gasps and not a few nervous throat-clearing from the congregation. Caroline had tied a pillow under her “Mary” costume, clearly indicateing that she was expecting a baby. When “the time came for her to be delivered” Caroline imitated full-out labor pains, complete with screaming. Some people were shocked at how far Caroline carried her assignment. It was just that no one had ever seen Mary “pregnant” in a pageant before. Caroline had given them an image that disturbed the clean pictures of Jesus’ birth that we normally see.
Mary and Joseph’s Experience
Over the years we have cleaned up the Christmas story, made it something only for children. But that’s not the story in the Bible, and it’s not the “good news” God has for us.
We sanitize this story to the point that it’s separated from our own life stories. The shepherds were hired hands and represented the lowest levels of society in the ancient world. Those who spent time only with animals would not be quite so well behaved as we command our pageant shepherds to be. We imagine a quaint manger scene in a nice cave or clean little grotto for the animals. But we usually neglect to imagine the animal manure, and its accompanying smell, in our minds eye. And of course, few of us actually dare to imagine Mary as really pregnant.
As a result, we can’t imagine a holy God to coming into the middle of a messy world, where shepherds sleep in the dirt after drinking too much, where animals do what animals do, and where pregnant women scream in labor pains. We place God in this story only in such a way as to keep a clean God separate from the harsh, shameful mess of our world—and of our own lives.
God in the Midst of the Mess
When we do that, we fail to understand what God is doing on this night. God chose to be born into our messy, despairing world, into the middle of hopelessness. God chose to come not into a cleaned up palance, but into the squalor of humanity’s injustice and cruelty to one another, into a family that wanders homeless, announced to shepherds in a pre-dawn stupor, in a place only good enough for smelly barnyard animals. God chooses to be in our mess. We just choose to ignore it. And so we tough it out with an image of a distant God too holy and clean to be in our unholy and messy lives.
The message of Christmas is that the God of creation is not clean, but messy. On this night, God chooses the dirt and grime, the pain and suffering, the very human and worldly stuff of pregnancy and childbirth. This is the lengths to which God will go to be in this broken world and in our broken lives.
The Presence of Christ
God comes into the mess. He comes right into history, into a despairing world, so that he can set us free from hopelessness. For as we see Jesus in a cattle feeding trough, we can no longer see God as separate, distant, clean. What that means is that no matter how messy, disgusting, shameful, or broken our lives are, God chooses to be in it with us. And when God is present, our hope is revealed.
That’s why we sing with joy this night of nights. Not because we’ve cleaned ourselves up good enough for Christ to be with us, but because when we are unable to clean up our lives, God chooses to come to us.
In the end, I think that Caroline had it right. Christmas reveals God bringing our hope into the stuff of a messy life.
So for those whose lives are a mess, for those who aren’t clean enough to be with Jesus, for those who just can’t seem to get things together, Merry Christmas. This night is for you. This place is for you. Tonight your hope is revealed.