The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
There’s a 1965 epic film about the life of Jesus titled, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It’s a grand Hollywood film which pretty much renders Jesus’ life, from the Nativity to the Ascension, in a fairytale-like way.
Now fairytales have a purpose. I’m a big fan of them, actually. They evoke memories of my childhood and provide a sense of comfort. We like fairytales so much that we have rendered the Nativity story into one; a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the stress and drudgery of the real world we face every day. The Nativity as fairytale is comforting and sweet. It’s the reason why the children’s Christmas pageant is the best attended worship service of the year. Its charm and the serendipity of what the children will say and do, bring big smiles to our faces. The pageant sets the mood for the joyful festivities of Christmas which follow.
In this Nativity fairytale Jesus is a rosy cheeked, plump, perfect baby, who as the carol Away in a Manger proclaims, “no crying he makes.” Now that’s a perfect baby!
In this fairytale Mary is clothed in a pristine white Alb with a gorgeous blue robe over it. Her hair and make-up are perfect, just like every women’s hair and make-up are perfect after they have given birth. Joseph stands over them, benignly gazing over this perfect baby and wife. All three seem far removed from the problems of the ordinary world in which they live. T his is a beautiful tableau and its purpose is to make us comfortable in an often-uncomfortable world . . . it is also about as far removed from the reality of the night of Jesus’ birth as we can get.
Let me be frank here: The Biblical text about the life of Jesus is without a doubt the greatest story ever told, but it is equally, without a doubt, the most scandalous story ever told, as well. And it all starts with his birth in Bethlehem which is the inaugural witness of the scandal that Jesus will usher into the world in his life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
All of which is to say that the fairytale we have created of Jesus’ birth should not prevent us from realizing the extraordinary scandal of just how God came into human history as a completely helpless newborn child, and was laid in a feeding trough, surrounded by animals in a cave. Because it is in that scandalous birth that our salvation lies.
Think of all the scandalous details surrounding the birth of Messiah. Luke certainly did. His narrative opens discussing powerful leaders: Emperor Augustus and Quirinius the governor of Syria. Yet this is not their story. The story is of a vulnerable unwed mother and her newborn child. And this birth occurs outside of any center of power, in a gritty backwater village called Bethlehem. The news of the birth is not proclaimed from the hills of Rome or Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, but to a bunch of ragged shepherds tending their flocks on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
This is not what we expect of God. We expect God works on a splashier stage with a better-heeled audience. This is scandalous!
Opening the story by citing the powerful and proud rulers of the time and then shifting to Bethlehem is to make a critical claim; a claim that this birth will change the course of history about the place in God’s reign for the rich and the proud and the poor and the humble. As Mary sang at the Annunciation, God in Jesus “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Scandalous!
Think of the irony that an emperor in Rome and a newborn peasant baby in Bethlehem have anything to do with one another, or that angels would bother singing God’s praises to smelly shepherds, or that a grimy village would get preference over the splendor of Herod’s jewel-encrusted and gold-leafed Temple. But they do. This radical, un-God like shift of focus from the what the anticipated narrative of Messiah’s arrival would be turns life upside down and inside out. Scandalous!
And then there’s the total vulnerability of the Holy Family brought on by their dire circumstances. A long, arduous journey through territory inhabited by bandits and wild animals, strange surroundings in Bethlehem, a no vacancy sign at the only inn in town, a newborn infant to protect, a dirty and foul smelling stable, a young woman compelled to undergo an unexpected pregnancy outside of the bonds of marriage, a husband who is struggling to follow God’s guidance even though he has serious doubts about how life is unfolding. The fear, confusion and anxiety weighing heavily on Mary and Joseph’s hearts had to be enormous. Frailty and vulnerability define these characters; they are steeped in it. God with us is frail and vulnerable. Scandalous!
We are disappointed, even repelled by how these actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth disabuse us of our fairytale imagery. Yet, conversely, they also fascinate us, compel us to look closer. Why?
I believe it is because we instinctively feel empathy for the Holy Family. Our compassion kicks in for them because we see ourselves reflected in them. If this is how God – Emmanuel - comes to dwell with us, in the midst of these scandalous, dire circumstances that seem beyond the pale, then it gives us hope that Emmanuel dwells with us today in our own lives, our own dire circumstances as well.
Theologian David Lose say this about Luke’s nativity story: “If God can work in and through such ordinary characters [ and circumstances, then] we are bid to wonder, perhaps God can also work in and through us. Luke wants, I think, to make sure we realize that it is not just human flesh ‘in general’ that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh. And it is not simply history ‘in general’ that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed.”
In the scandalous circumstances of Jesus’s birth I see my own vulnerabilities: my frailty in dealing with the challenges of live and relationships that can leave me feeling drained, isolated and lonely; the dirty and foul areas of my life that have me wondering if I can faithfully follow God’s call; those nagging doubts and fears that blemish my being the person God desires me to be; the vulnerability I feel as I grow older, contemplate my declining physical abilities, my health issues, and how these will impact my security. Dare I hope that in all those moments when I am afraid, doubtful and insecure and frightened, that God actually dwells within me?
And then the truth of the scandal embedded in Luke’s nativity story washes over me like the light from the star in the east. By entering human history in this way God identifies with all the oppressed, lonely, frightened and broken people in the world; which means all of us at one point or another.
In this scandalous birth God fully reveals God's intentions for humanity. God has not abandoned us to the brokenness of the world. In this scandalous birth a new world order unfolds. An order where wholeness trumps brokenness, love consumes hate, and life tramples death.
This truly is the greatest story ever told!
Draw closer to the manger, my friends. Look closely. You and I are there as well. This nativity story is as much about you and me as it is the all other characters. This is no fairytale. The circumstances of Jesus birth give us hope and courage in the midst of our own fragile, broken lives. In this birth we find our salvation. What a scandalous claim! What utter joy!
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.