Christmas Cards are dropping through our letter box at a steady rate at the moment. I have been opening them and looking at the pictures and something has struck me. I have been paying special attention to the cards which avoid, Santa, Elves, Reindeer, Christmas scene etc and focus on the Christmas story. I have been thinking about what the Christmas story looks like according to Christmas Cards. I have come to the conclusion its a pretty emasculated, domesticated and sentimentalised story which tidies up or removes the elements of the story that we might find a bit “uncomfortable” or “disconcerting.”
The Christmas Story according to Christmas Cards has a stable which seems to be entirely free of animal crap. Who knows, maybe the owner brought in a gang of cleaners before he let Mary and Joseph use it, or maybe the cattle and donkeys were toilet trained, then again probably not. The animals themselves, who appear on Christmas cards but not in the Gospel stories, appear so clean that they look like they have just been groomed and won first prize at some ancient Agricultural show. Likewise the shepherds, despite to all in intents and purposes living rough in the hills, look clean and tidy. The wise men, look like they have been dressed by some first century AD predecessor to Ralph Lauren, they are all bright colours and expensive fabrics. The Christmas Card Christmas story is so sanitised it could be sponsored by Domestus.
In contrast the Christmas story in the Gospels couldn’t be any less sentimental or sanitised, in fact there is almost a darkness to it. Mary and Joseph are undertaking a fairly arduous journey, but they aren’t gap year students having an adventure holiday or a couple having a happy jaunt to visit relatives. This couple are being forced to make the trip against their will and have been made temporarily homeless all because of actions of an oppressive occupying power who wants to screw more money out of them. Despite hospitality being legendary in the Middle East, the Gospels tell us that this young couple who are so desperately in need of somewhere to stay find most of Bethlehem distinctly inhospitable. The impression given is that Bethlehem is apathetic about Mary and Joseph and their desperate predicament. The story gets darker as it progresses. Generally Christmas cards show the Wise Men and Shepherds turning up after Jesus is born, they miss out the murder squad arriving in town. These heartless thugs turn up on the orders of one of the cruelest tyrants of the day Herod the “Great”. Herod, who had already murdered members of his own family to keep the throne and decided to eliminate all the children under two to make sure he took out the Messiah who it had been rumoured has been born in Bethlehem. The “Slaughter of The Innocents” is a scene from the Christmas story I am pretty sure won’t be on a card on your mantelpiece this year. Herod’s hit-men kill as many young children as they can find but miss Jesus as his parents were tipped off about Herod’s genocidial intentions. The Christmas Story sort of rounds off with Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing for their lives as homeless refugees, not exactly “happy ever after” stuff.
Fairy tales end in “happy after ever” rereading the story of Jesus’ birth reminded me that this is no fairy tale. Jesus is born into the real world. A world of oppression, dirt and filth, poverty, violence, evil and apathy not the pristine cute world of the Christmas card. It reminds me of how much changes as history rolls on and how little changes as history rolls on. This week not too far from where Jesus was born in Judea, in Syria families just like Joseph’s, also just like Joseph’s, will be fleeing for the lives to become refugees in a foreign country. This week the actions of an ancient madman in killing young children for his own demented reasons were echoed by the actions of a young madman in the US, causing the same inconsolable grief and despair in Newtown as was experienced in Bethlehem. I am certain in every year in between innocent lives have been taken because of the actions of evil men. Sadly, there will probably be young children violently killed today in areas of Africa, in Afghanistan and in their own homes. In my more honest moments I wonder if I would have been any more hospitable to the Ben Josephs as I struggle not to be apathetic about the homeless in my own city.
In my days in the police I was involved in several Royal Visits. The Queen would arrive in Scotland with an army of servants, and a contingent of the army, a mountain of luggage, numerous body guards, a fleet of limousines and be treated to the best of everything and kept away from the worst of anything. I often wondered if she believed the whole world smelled of fresh paint. There was even rumours of a kid leather toilet seat cover so the naked royal posterior didn’t get cold or have to sit where the plebs had sat, and well you know what. That’s how rulers travel and visit, its first class, luxuriously and safely. Ever seen Air Force One or a presidential motorcade? Yet those self same unsentimental Gospel writers affirm that what happened in that stinking stable, in that city that was apathetic to that poor, hounded, frightened couple was the ultimate royal visit. They and the writers of the rest of the NT affirm that Jesus was indeed the King in the line of David who would come to embody and usher in the reign of God that Israel’s prophets had predicted and people had longed for. No wonder John wrote “The Word became flesh and DWELLED AMONG US” Jesus didn’t dwell apart from us in heaven or even palaces protected from harm by body guards and inoculated from need by fabulous wealth. Jesus was born into and dwelled in the real world, the violent world, the oppressive world, the frightening world. He entered the worst of our world.
So what? …. Well if this is true and I believe it to be, we have a God who understands. When we are frightened, when we are oppressed by a system that works against ordinary people, when people turn away from us in apathy or hostility, when we experience real physical need, when our family are the victims of threats and violence, when we suffer because of the evil other people, when we are grief stricken, we are in a very real sense walking in the footsteps of our God. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates Hebrews 2:16-18 “It’s obvious, of course, that he didn’t go to all this trouble for angels. It was for people like us, children of Abraham. That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life. Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed.”
The writer of Hebrews, whoever he or she was, nails it. The Jesus of the Christmas Card Christmas story is an impotent saviour because he is protected from real life. On the other hand, the authentic Jesus of the Christmas Story we read about in the Gospels both understands and can help us with the very real challenges we face because He has experienced real life in the real world and took on and defeated real evil, sin and death on its home turf. Its interesting that one the most popular Christmas Carols JOY TO THE WORLD is often sanitised like our Christmas Cards. This verse is often missed out
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
I don’t know about you but I am going to make sure I sing that verse this year, because I need a real Saviour and only a Saviour who has lived in the real world will do.