The stark reality of Jesus’ birth

The idyllic manger tableau doesn't reflect the first Christmas in Bethlehem, argues the author. Photo of artist Gerard van Honthorst's The Adoration of the Shepherds: The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons
The idyllic manger tableau doesn't reflect the first Christmas in Bethlehem, argues the author. Photo of artist Gerard van Honthorst's The Adoration of the Shepherds: The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons
By on December 23, 2014

A few years ago, an English bishop suggested adding a bucket of fresh manure to the traditional Christmas decorations in churches, to remind people what the first Christmas was really like. Predictably, there were cries of protest that this would ruin the “beauty” of the season.

The “beauty” of course shows in stained glass and Christmas cards and Sunday school pageants: radiant mother dressed all in blue, gazing adoringly at her baby boy sleeping angelically in a box of straw…solid, upright husband standing guard over his new family…the friendly animals looking on in wonder.

A pretty picture, sentimentally enhanced by the great star overhead, shepherds and wise men-just like those manger scenes we set up in church. Beautiful, yes, but look again.

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There’s not much beauty being a young mother, near her time, riding a balky donkey, then delivering in a smelly cave because nobody had room for a pregnant girl whose first-born had a cattle feeding trough for his first cradle.

Neither is there much lovely in a 21st-century Iraqi refugee mother, living with 20 others in a refugee tent, who delivered her baby with no medical help, wrapping the child in a shirt literally off someone’s back; nor a Palestinian family in Gaza displaced from their ancestral land by an expansionist state.

There’s nothing romantic in Matthew’s account of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, nothing much sentimental in the gospel’s portrayal of the Holy Family becoming refugees in Egypt to escape a murderous King Herod, or the lot of Coptic Christians in today’s Egypt who must pay protection money to Islamic overlords if they want to live.

None of this would seem out of place in today’s Middle East with its seemingly endless cycle of hatred and suspicion, violence and revenge-an especially dangerous situation for Christian communities in the Middle East and parts of Asia as they become more and more the target of fundamentalist Islamic violence. The Christmas story becomes very contemporary when we think of the millions of people uprooted by war, the homeless or poor in our own country, the many who through flood or famine will die of starvation-some on Christmas day itself.

The Incarnation, the earthly life of Jesus, took place in the heart of those realities. The son of God entered this world not in glory and comfort as a guest of the upper classes, but as the child of a peasant couple, born in a barn behind a fourth-rate hotel, in a third-rate town, in a second-rate country that was a backwater of the Roman Empire. Christmas is God coming to live among us as an ordinary person with no special privileges. Were this not so, it would not be real, and we would not be celebrating it as the source of our hope all these centuries later.

Christmas points us beyond the baby to the man Jesus. His self-emptying of glory to become incarnate, to become human, was only the beginning: it carries through Good Friday and Easter, the cross and resurrection, showing the same love for humankind. It promised victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, and the vision of what the world could be like.

We need to be alert to receive the life-giving, liberating good news of Christmas: that the love of God-God’s own son-came into the world “for us [everyone] and for our salvation in body, mind, and spirit.”

Maybe the idea of manure in church isn’t such a bad idea-the aroma might remind people that Jesus gave his life to clearing up the mess men and women had made, and are still making.

It is ironic that the lands where originated the world’s best-ever plan for peace on earth, goodwill among people, is today the scene of so much suffering and hatred.

It reminds us that there are two sides to Christmas-the stark reality and the hope it brings: that the crib and the cross were both made of wood.

The Rev. William Portman is a retired priest of the Qu’Appelle diocese and a former book review editor for the Anglican Journal.

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