Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Does the Nativity Offend You? It Should.

'Nativity' photo (c) 2013, Sharon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
The nativity; so romantic and idyllic, so comfortable and peaceful, so familiar and well-known, like a warm pair of sweat pants we can burrow in to. We see it every year, the shepherds, the wise men, the baby Jesus in the manger.  We know the nativity scene like the back of our hand, so well we could set it up blindfolded. I wonder though, if it’s a bit too familiar to us, a bit too comfortable, a bit too well-known.

Think about it, the baby Jesus, the son of God born in a barn.  We romanticize it a bit.  Truth is it’s not quite as cute and quaint as we make it out to be.  When’s the last time you’ve been in a barn? Chances are the smell was unpleasant to say the least. In all reality, where Jesus was born was most likely in a cave and he was laid to rest in a feed trough—hardly where one would expect to find the son of God to be found on the night of his birth.

We need only to think back to the birth of Prince George, son of Prince William and Duchess Catherine, to imagine the fanfare that should have accompanied the birth of Jesus.  Remember the wall-to-wall media coverage, the international acclaim, and the fanaticism over the royal birth?  If Jesus were to be born today, we would certainly expect his coming to be celebrated in the same manner. Yet, that is the exact opposite of what happened.

Bear Nativity
This is where we need to go back to the historical manger, the feed trough, the smelly cave. We need to strip off the layers of romantic and idyllic images we’ve pictured it to be.  Instead, we need to see the birth of Jesus in a cave for what it really is—unsettling, offensive, shocking even. Rather than being born in a royal palace, in the capital city of Rome, he was born in a backwoods town, far away from the centers of power and influence, amongst a family with so little wealth or persuasion they couldn’t even secure a place to spend the night.

If Jesus were to come today, he wouldn’t come to an influential political family in D.C. or a media mogul in Hollywood. No, if Jesus were to come today, he would come to a migrant family from Mexico, traveling without documentation across the Sonoran desert, looking for work in the United States. If Jesus were born today, he would be born in the desert, left for dead by the coyote, picked up by la migra (the border patrol) and swaddled in an old, worn out blanket, as the family rode in shackles to the border patrol holding cell. If Jesus were born today, his coming would be announced to the minorities of the slums of south central LA, to the drug dealers and prostitutes, to the poor, the homeless, and the forgotten.

It’s a bit offensive isn’t it? A bit shocking perhaps; the thought of the sweet, innocent baby Jesus born amidst such utter poverty—and it’s exactly the context Jesus was born into. Maybe we’ve familiarized ourselves with the nativity so we can forget that we are the ones that need to be shaken up. Forget that we have assimilated with the powerful, that we have aligned ourselves with economic interests that abandon the poor, that we have accepted a world where Jesus born in abject poverty would simply be disregarded as another unplanned pregnancy of a single, unwed, minority female. 

Here in middle class, suburban America, where Christmas and the baby Jesus is comforting and reassuring, this image of Jesus disturbs us. We’re far too comfortable with our image of a white Jesus who looks like us, mirrors our own political and economic values, coddles us in our preconceived notions and ideals about him. Just as we find such an image of Jesus’ birth shocking and unsettling, those reading Luke’s written account would have been similarly offended. 

And that’s the way it should be. If the nativity isn’t offensive and unsettling to us today, perhaps it’s because we are those amidst the halls of power he was seeking to avoid.

So this Christmas, if we think we’ve got God figured out, if we think we’ve got Jesus perfectly idealized, we need to take a fresh look at the nativity. 

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