By Audrey Stallsmith
I’ve been reading a book called Watch for the Light, which is a collection of Christmas pieces by "the world’s best-loved spiritual writers." Although these were intended to be read at the rate of one a day during the weeks of Advent, I cheated and finished them all in one fell swoop. Well, two or three fell swoops!
A complaint expressed in several of the pieces reminded me of the following poem that I wrote many years back. (Very free verse, I’m afraid, or what one of my professor’s used to call "chopped prose!")
Christmas starts in September now
With plastic poinsettias, fake firs,
And Forty Percent Off.
So keep the imitation infant
In His make-believe manger
Under a florescent star.
Leave out all trace of sweat and shame,
Agony and animal dung.
The shock of God being made Man.
Leave Him in the pseudo-cedar
Of a manger that never smelled a stable
On simulated straw.
That way He won't bother customers
In their mindless buying after
Happiness at discount.
(Remind me to cancel the Cross, come Easter.
Morbid. Makes people think.)
Religion, romanticized, charms,
But Reality doesn't sell.
The poem is, of course, fictional. I doubt any store manager ever actually expressed those sentiments so bluntly. And, as many of the writers in Watch for the Light pointed out, it isn’t only the merchants who are at fault. We Christians have also allowed God’s shocking irruption into history to be reduced to just another pretty story.
Of course, anything that is repeated over and over tends to lose its zing after awhile. But one thing’s for sure. The events leading up to the original Christmas were very grimly down-to-earth. As Philip Yancey points out in "The Visited Planet," "The political climate at the time of Jesus’ birth resembled that of Russia in the 1930s under Stalin. Citizens could not gather in public meetings. Spies were everywhere."
The wise thing to do under those circumstances was either to butter up the authorities or keep a low profile. Most Israelites, I imagine, chose the latter. Any rebellion they could stage against a "superpower" like Rome wouldn’t have a prayer.
Then, in a Galilean village, apparently so dirt poor that it was despised by everyone, an angel dropped in on a teenager named Mary. By angel, I don’t mean a pretty lady with long blonde hair either. Most of the heavenly hosts pictured in Scripture were not the sweetly comforting creatures popular now. On the contrary, whenever they appeared with no concealment of what they were, they basically scared people silly.
The up side is that, when you’ve been knocked back on your heels by that kind of power, you’re not likely to doubt where it came from! Once Mary had recovered from her shock enough to hear the intruder’s message, she must have had mixed feelings at best.
Her assent could cost her what precious few things a peasant girl owned--her fiance, her reputation, the affections of her family. Possibly even her life if the authorities heard she was harboring a future king in her womb. Mary’s, "Okay," meant the completely upending of her existence as she had known it. But she was one of those unusual few "who trusted so deeply," as Henri Nouwen writes in "Waiting for God," "that her waiting was open to all possibilities. And she did not want to control them."
Most of us, I think, would have demanded to control them. We would have asked for some guarantees. Mary’s decision wouldn’t only affect herself, after all. It would bring disgrace on her entire family--not to mention Joseph. She probably discovered all too soon, as many of the prophets had, that being favored by God isn’t always a picnic.
The consensus seems to be that Joseph wouldn’t have taken a very pregnant Mary with him to Bethlehem unless life in Nazareth had become well nigh unendurable to her. As Yancey writes, "It seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favoritism. . .when the Son of God became a human being he played by the rules, harsh rules. . ."
Those harsh rules apparently included birth on a barn floor, with no courtiers on hand to celebrate His arrival but a few scruffy shepherds. The wise men didn’t arrive until later, and their visit was obviously a hurried affair. Even before the dream-warning the Magi, being political creatures themselves, had probably read the "temperature" in Jerusalem, and deduced that the news they had brought was not exactly welcome to the present administration.
Not even to the religious element in it. Soren Kierkegaard points out in "Only a Rumor" that "although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement."
I doubt the scribes were actually "unperturbed." On the contrary, they probably had a pretty good idea that showing any interest in a new king could end up costing them their necks.
And I imagine many of them were actually doing quite well under Herod, as some did under Saddam Hussein. Dictators like those two tend to accumulate a lot of wealth. And, as the "oil for food" debacle proves, those who cozy up can get in on the gravy train. Why risk all that for a baby who wouldn’t be able to lead any revolutions for years anyway?
Of course, the scribes were only expecting a political deliverer. They obviously didn’t anticipate that their savior would be God Himself. That was the explosive surprise of the whole plot. No, it’s not a particularly pretty story, but it is a thrilling one--to which no other even begins to compare.
But, as citizens of one of the richest nations on earth, we American are, I’m afraid, too much like those scribes Kierkegaard described who "know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement." Although we profess to dislike the one who is currently in charge of the "kingdoms of this world," many of us are doing a little too well under the present system to really press for change. If we’re not careful, however, we’re going to miss what Yancey called "the Great Invasion. . .a daring raid by the ruler of the forces of good into the universe’s seat of evil."