There is little doubt the feast we celebrate and the settings in which we celebrate it are very different. We recall the “First Christmas” in nice dulcet tones and pastel colors, with a healthy dose of sentimental romanticism, as we have done with most of Jesus’ life. It just makes us feel good. We surround our celebration with family get-togethers, gifts, decorations, good food and fellowship. What we celebrate happened long ago, so it really doesn’t have much impact on our daily living today. It’s just a nice time, a break from our daily existence, a respite from the difficulties which we all experience. Maybe we want to, or maybe we don’t want to, take a deeper look at the reality of what we celebrate. Jesus came among us through people on the peripheries, as God is doing now in our time.
In this feast we celebrate the birth of a brown-skinned middle-eastern undocumented immigrant outsider born in a land occupied by a foreign power that maintained peace by military force. His parents had to flee with him to a foreign country for safety because people were looking to kill him. There are parallels to our living situation today. The country where Jesus was born is under threat from military-like violence, bombs, rockets, hit squads, random killings, which have caused thousands of deaths and untold damage in the past few months. Parents do their best to care for their children and each other. Violence is inflicted on people whose only connection to the violence is that they are its victims. In the background are differing notions of God that have been against each other for centuries. A small sign of hope is that there are people on all sides are trying to help each other get through it all.
It is not a long reach to see parallels with today. To oversimplify, brown skinned parents, and others, with their children from many countries around the world, trying to find a place of safety for their families, are making long and dangerous treks in search of a better life. Many of them do not survive their journey, or are turned away by violence and bureaucracy. Military forces of various ilks are doing violence to keep them out countries. Some are doing things that at best are inhuman, unleashing terrible suffering and violence. Now in our time, as it was in the Story’s time, these tragedies are engineered by people who live very comfortably, and, without getting their hands dirty themselves, have convinced others to do their dirty work, and they make a healthy profit while doing so.
Closer to home, and elsewhere too, there are others among us whose way of living and loving is offensive to some people and organizations, especially some religious ones who claim to speak in the name of God, and judge them as “intrinsically disordered”. They cannot come “in” unless they change somehow. They are also called unacceptable unless they become what a religious tradition says they have to be, and traditions differ in this. This attitude has caused much pain and suffering, and even has led to suicides. Yet, while Francis says all are welcome, some bishops pointedly and publicly disagree. When he recently said priests can bless persons in same sex unions, the negative reaction was predictable and alleged to be in the name of the same God who creates our brothers and sisters as they are. He said, “The lives of people and the world around us are, and will always remain, superior to ideas and theories”. I can’t say what others should do, but I have to look at this, go where it takes me, and act accordingly. If I believe God loves us enough to become one of us to show us how to live as we are created, I have to ask what is God saying to me in all this here and now in my nice comfortable place? I know from experience, at times loud, forceful, and threatening, that a serious and practical understanding of the Gospel isn’t welcome in many areas of life, that it is okay for in church, but not for “real life”. The Story and all that it implies always will be “counter-cultural”, meaning it will not fit into a way of life focused on comfort and security. It reminds us that all people are important. What are you saying to me? Can I trust enough to consent to what I don’t know? Do I believe you care enough to have a role for me? Am I doing anything to contribute to these tragedies in the way I live and think, or even pray? I’ve been part of an occupying military force and its violence, but also of the good that happens there but is not talked much about. I have looked down on and judged my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but by grace I think I have grown beyond that scared and judgmental attitude, and am learning from my past.
While there is a lot of good in this Story, there is not much nice about it. Animals are messy, barns smell, and so do shepherds, who were considered outcasts and barely tolerable. Yet both are important elements of the Story. Jesus came among the outcasts, and does so now. Who am I saying no to? Life is messy, not neat and orderly, or fitting comfortable categories. Sometimes it is dangerous, even tragic, yet in the messiness, danger, and tragedy God is among us being God, often through us, through people. But evil happens through people, through me, too. As I look at the immigrant, LGBTQ, and other tragedies around the world, can I say with any certitude that the Story is not happening again today? What responsibilities do I bear, and do I want to know?
Christmas can be as personal as I choose. What is it saying to me in my very comfortable senior citizen residence, where I can easily avoid getting involved in anything? What am I not doing to help bring peace and healing? I can’t do much around the world or even in my country or locality anymore, so, now what? Where is the joy that the angels proclaimed, and maybe that I am called to proclaim? While I feel joy in my own life as it is happening now, where is it in the terrible suffering and tragedies around me? What am I called to do to live my joy outside my comfort zone? The Gospel offers answers, but first it gives questions I have to ask. Dare I ask them? Do I even know what they are yet? Am I afraid of the answers? Can I really trust, or do I prefer anxiety about the future? If I choose, I can celebrate the Story by letting the same Spirit lead me on my own journey of trust and letting go, reasonably aware that, as in the past, there will be difficulties, mainly to my ego. Do I want more of that stuff? Do I want to trust, or just talk about trusting? More wandering and wondering. The journey continues, probably into more stuff. Just sayin . . .