What do you see when you encounter the Manger scene, a live nativity, or imagine Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth? Despite the cultural differences and varying artistic influences; the characters never change. One will always find a dutiful Joseph, a pensive Mary, submissive beasts, amazed shepherds, a cosmic beacon, regal eastern visitors, and a sleeping baby Jesus. This is how we’ve come to picture Jesus’ birth. Whether shoved to a stable by a overbooked inn keeper or placed in a guest room by overwhelmed members of his Joseph’s family; the Incarnation is recorded as something other than regal or divine.
Despite countless Sunday School lessons and Christmas Pageants (even a few sermons) on the counter-intuitive nature of a Messiah in a stable; each year we gladly look past the very contradictions God calls on us to embrace. In truth, it makes us uncomfortable to worship a poor God born to an unwed teenage mother. It’s awkward to discuss how she and Joseph will feed a child given the endemic poverty in which they live. It’s painful to think about the world in which this baby will grow up; a world where no matter how hard you work, you’ll never be free or equal to the Romans.
To avoid engaging with the reality at center of the nativity scene, we usually ignore what we don’t want see. It is easier to eschew something making you uncomfortable if you can focus on cute shepherds, baby faced angels, sweet donkeys, and cuddly cows. Again we invert the contradiction, nothing about the Nativity is supposed to be cute, cuddly, warm, meek, mild, or silent. The world, the Romans, those who would seek to use the Christ Child to advance certain agendas need to overlook the child, the child’s message, and revise the context of the world in which he entered. The world, like the manger, is dirty, nasty, smelly, full of shady characters, and people living on the edge of economic survival. There’s nothing charming about that picture. If we’re distracted by angels and shepherds, maybe we won’t pay attention to what the Christ Child is saying about injustice, inequality, debt, slavery, and the lack of human kindness so much so that babies are being born in stables.
Like avoiding an annoying relative at Christmas lunch, we hope by talking to the shepherds or hearing a fascinating tale of Persian adventures, the sleeping baby will stay quiet. The last thing we want to do is engage with the Christ Child. Far from the demands of child rearing, diaper changing and nighttime feeding; the child will make claims on our lives that we (as Nativity) observers are not prepared to make. The Christ Child will want to us to stop looking at the manger and stand inside the world he has come to inhabit.
The incarnation is an invitation to join with Jesus in the Good News. The Good News begins in the poorest of circumstances, a place where the poor are sheltered from a Roman Census. The Good News begins in a place where people are treated like animals. Where people are dehumanized, this is where the Good News goes first. The uncomfortable truth about the Gospel is that it has very little do with the trappings what we call “Christmas”. Our mission is to take people out of the dehumanizing mangers they call home and bring them to places of safety and security. We are still called to do this.
A manger isn’t something to idolize. It’s something to tear down and abandon. It’s a symbol of a broken economic, social, and religious system. Let’s not accept mangers scenes as the status quo for anyone. Let’s stop building mangers scenes.
Richard Lowell Bryant