December 24, 2007

The Scandal of Christmas

Something unusual has struck me about this particular Christmas season. Aside from the fact that it's been another unusual one for our family (last year we were in Melbourne having a picnic in 95-degree heat on Christmas eve, this year we're back to NY but we have a baby), I've been reading the Christmas story a bit differently.

It started the other night when Liz and I decided to open our gifts from each other early so we wouldn't have to try and fit them into the already overly-stuffed car to get to NY. But we decided to read the Christmas story first. Being our first year doing this sort of thing alone, I (somewhat foolishly) decided we had to be different and read the Matthew account of Jesus' birth rather than the Luke account which is traditionally read. I know now why everybody reads Luke - he was a lot more interesting.

Anyway, what struck me (and continues to mess with me each time I read it this year) is the scandal of Christmas. It's not the sort of story you'd expect to begin the foundational story of a world religion. Sure, you can dress it up however you want, but when you start looking into it, lots of things don't really add up.

Let's start with the fact that Mary is an unwed teenager who suddenly finds out she's pregnant. I imagine nobody's ever used the "Holy Spirit" excuse before (though I imagine many have since), but what must the neighbors have thought? Her parents? We know what her fiancee thought, because he (Joseph) first decides that he's going to divorce her "quietly". Which, given the culture, was awful nice of him because the penalty for her impregnation could have been stoning. But Joseph is an unusually nice guy for his time and says no, he'll divorce her quietly so as to preserve his own righteousness and maybe spare her (who he obviously adores) a stoning and the humiliation it gives her family.

But no, an Angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that Mary's legit, and to go ahead and marry her anyway. Oh, and by the way, name the kid - who will be a boy - Jesus. There's all sorts of things messed up with this one. First off, we've got the angel in a dream; I've dreamt some wierd stuff, but never an angel. And most of the time I wake up with an unsettled feeling that my dream was wierd, but I don't remember much of it. Joseph? Nope. He wakes up, remembers, and then actually FOLLOWS the advice of the angel in the dream. And what's the advice? Allow himself to be associated with this social travesty, and to name the kid (who is, by the way, not really his kid) one of the most common names of the day. Oh right. And he's not allowed to consummate the marriage until after the kid (who isn't his) is born. That means he's married, but no sex. Again, imagine that today! If you think it was hard then, that last part might be even worse now.

Ok. So the Romans have a census (just for the fun of it) and Mary and Joseph wander off to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and due to overcrowding in the local Motel 6, they hole up in a cave or shed that houses animals. That one's pretty self-explanatory; no epidurals or pain meds, not even a nice cozy hospital bed or midwife to help: Joseph has to do this more or less on his own. I've been there when it wasn't my job, and that was stressful enough.

But what about the guys who all come and visit? First off, poor Mary (remember, she's a young teenager) is so exhausted after giving birth that she puts the kid the only place she can - the feeding trough for the animals. But soon after, a bunch of the local shepherds wander in, looking somewhat dazed, and ask if this is where God became man. Who are the shepherds? Peasants, first of all, but the lowest of the low. They're the guys with no social skills, who spend their whole days watching the sheep so everybody else can have wool and the occasional lamb dish. They're dirty, haven't showered ... well, ever, and now they wander into your stall in the stable and ask to see your kid. Why? Because an angel appears to them and tells them to "be not afraid."

Seriously? An angel? Think about it; put yourself in their shoes. They're doing the same thing they do every night. It's a boring, BORING job; the sheep are mostly laying down by this point, and the shepherds are trying to keep themselves awake just a little longer. Nothing out of the ordinary. Tomorrow is going to be the same as today was, or so they think. But no - a being the likes of which they have never even dreamt (at least Joseph had dreamt of one) appears out of nowhere. Now, ok, I have no idea if he was standing or flying (the scriptures never actually say), but the shepherds are "terrified." Not "mildly discomforted" or "a bit freaked out," but "terrified." I imagine even "terrified" doesn't quite describe the "I-just-soiled-myself" feeling of seeing an angel appear out of nowhere. But then the angel has the gall to say "be not afraid." As if. But the story he tells catches their attention and they listen to what he has to say. And what happens next? MORE angels appear out of nowhere! The shepherds soil themselves again. But then they abandon their posts and (hoping the angels might keep an eye on the sheep for them) run to Bethlehem to see the child the angels described.

How about the other visitors? I've heard different accounts of these guys. Some told me that they came when Jesus was still in the manger, others say it was even when Jesus was two or three years old. Regardless, a bunch of "wise men" (no, not necessarily three; there were three gifts though) "from the east" come to visit Jesus because they followed a "star in the sky" that told them to. I mean, let's just say it: they were Iraqi Astrologers. They saw a new star and decided that it was so important that they up and left their jobs to come and find its cause. Notice: they assumed a person (that they assumed they could find) caused it, or at least, that the stars were telling them about a person.

So uncomfortable on a number of levels. First off, they were probably from Iraq ("from the east"), which doesn't have so good a track record here in the good 'ol USA these days. No, they weren't Muslim, but they were quite possibly pagan. Regardless, they were Gentiles, the "don't associate with them because they're unclean" bunch for any Jew. A bit like Iraqi Muslims these days for lots of American Christians.

Second, they were astrologers. Yes - they read the stars to tell the future. They were making their living at this! But notice: God still spoke their langauge. He still put the star there even though they had the nerve to be all New-Agey and read fortunes and tell the future from the stars. I love what Erwin McManus says - "Christians need Jesus just like Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims do!" The star was there in the sky and the magi up and followed it to its resting place: Jesus. I sometimes wonder if that star is still around. Is it one we take for granted (like Polaris or maybe one of the brighter stars in the sky?), or did it go away after Jesus ascended?

The Christmas story is not something we'd like to tell in a church these days if it happened on our turf. We wouldn't really like to tell of a plumber's son who was born in the back room of a McDonald's to a pair of Mexican immigrants. We wouldn't want to talk about how the mother wasn't married to the father yet, or how the visitors to the kid weren't the academics or the theologians but were some hippies or maybe some alcoholics or alley-dwelling bums telling crazy stories of aparitions and angels. Nor would we want to tell how the only gifts the parents were given had been given by some gypsies who said that their crystal balls mentioned the exact time and place of the kid's birth and how they had to see for themselves.

This year has been a year to see the old familiar story with new eyes. God came here. But He didn't come the way we wanted. From the start he spent his time with people nobody else would; an unwed teenage mother, a stepfather, pagan astrologers from a distant land, and peasant outcasts telling outrageous stories. The next thirty-three years wouldn't be that predictable either.

The Christmas story is not for the faint of heart. Have we forgotten that?

Merry Christmas.

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