Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Disruption of Christmas

Christmas at my family's home has always been a bit of a production. The entire house gets decked top to bottom, inside to outside. On the manicured front lawn three shining white reindeer illuminate the entrance to our home, while perfect little silver trees dot the dark of the back yard. Inside the house, there is not one Christmas tree, but ten: trees in every room decorated to match the décor or theme of that particular room…blue and silver in the Blue Room, pinks and green in the Rose Room, you get the idea? Presents are wrapped so distinctly and trimmed so neatly you feel bad opening them. My mother works diligently each year to create the perfect Christmas home which in the end is so painstakingly picture perfect, it would put Martha Stewart to shame.

Now enter my curious and energetic 5 year old niece. The admonitions of years past no longer work. What she used to accept as the law from on high she now questions. Why in the world would you not want to touch something as spectacular as all of these bright shiny decorations strewn around the house?

This year, she was fascinated by the nativity sets displayed prominently throughout the house. She would travel from room to room and systematically re-arrange the scenes. Rather than have the perfectly displayed manger with Mary and Joseph positioned just so behind the wooden crib, with the shepherds, kings and animals all laid out in neat lines, my niece moved every single figurine into a circle, so that each character whether sheep or goat, shepherd or angel all had a front row seat to gaze at the babe in the crib. Each had equal access to the newborn savior. With Jesus at the center, the manger scenes suddenly went from postcard perfect, to resemble a football huddle of sorts.

You see, for my niece, Jesus was the focal point of the festivities. After all if Christmas is about the birth of baby Jesus, shouldn't the figures in the manger all be focused on the small infant? Arranging the figurines in a circle made sense to her.

It did not, however, make sense to my parents. They followed her around frantically trying to put right what she had disrupted. Wandering into a room, you would see a slightly bemused frown come across their face as they spotted the misplaced manger figures…in a circle, indeed! They would laugh nervously and then re-arrange the figurines back into that picture perfect postcard of a surreal manger scene.

Watching this unfold day after day, it seemed a perfect illustration of children’s uncanny grasp of Christmas. Despite the commercialization and consumerism that inevitably comes with the holiday season, somehow it seems that children understand at a level adults cannot remember that the day is about a baby, an infant, a child.

Perhaps, this is because Christmas is the one holiday where a child takes center stage. Or perhaps, it is because children do not yet have stamped in their minds that image of the perfect family Christmas…you know the one I’m talking about…the Christmas scene of the poster family, gathered sweetly around the fireside exchanging gifts under the light of the beautifully trimmed tree, while snow falls gently outside. It is the Norman Rockwell, June Cleaver, Martha Stewart vision of Christmas where indeed all is merry and bright.

As we grow older it seems this cultural image replaces our earlier visions of Christmas that center on that babe in the manger. The scripts we read as adults have less to do with an unwed teenage mother giving birth to a child in a barn and more to do with family members playing the right parts. The scenery changes from a rustic stable to a well-manicured middle class home, brimming with warmth, and food, and presents. And the baby, the baby who ought to be at the center, well that infant now sits silently on the mantle lost amidst a sea of figurines all perfectly positioned to create an ancient postcard scene.

But the fact of the matter is that few of us actually have the picture perfect Christmas gatherings our society tells us we ought to have. Not even at Christmas are our lives and our families perfect. It might even be argued that especially at Christmas our lives and our families are not perfect. The stress of performing the perfect Christmas ritual can sometimes be too much for people. Whether that means getting through another dysfunctional family gathering, struggling to find the funds to purchase that one special gift, or managing a day alone while others travel to meet loved ones. Despite rumors of Christmas as the “hap, happiest time of year,” many people find themselves more stressed and depressed than ever come December 25th. With our focus scattered like the figurines in the perfect manger, we lose sight of the babe in the manger. No longer huddled together to witness the presence of the Christ coming into our world, we position ourselves as actors in a play that ultimately fails to satisfy our deepest needs.

But turning ourselves back to the babe in the manger, to the presence of the Christ in our life can be disruptive. Just as my niece's incessant re-positioning of the figurines disrupted the narrative of my family's Christmas, so also does the very birth of Christ disrupt the narrative of the world.

The reading for this evening tells a story of continued disruption. After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate the newborn babe to God. Similar to our contemporary rites of infant dedication, christening or baptism, this was a ritual prescribed by Jewish tradition. It is interesting to note that far from the perfect picture of a well-off family’s celebration of the dedication of a child that included the offering of a sheep, Mary and Joseph, poor as they were, could only afford to offer a pair of pigeons in thanksgiving for Jesus’ birth.

In the midst of this solemn, traditional family ritual, a scene erupts. A strange old man, who had been wandering the streets, suddenly burst into the temple. Marching straight to the altar where Mary and Joseph were gathered for the dedication, this man, Simeon, took the baby Jesus in his own arms and raised him up in praise to God, saying:

“God, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Even as Simeon held the baby, in came another elderly woman, a prophet named Anna, who lived in the temple. She too began to prophesy about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. The text tells us that despite miraculous and disruptive events to date, Mary and Joseph were still amazed at what the elderly prophets said about their child.

Can you imagine this scene at a contemporary baptism or christening? Strangers off the street interrupting the service to grab the child and proclaim wild prophesies of salvation not just for the nation of Israel, but for the Gentiles too! If this had happened in some churches today, I imagine the wardens, deacons or security guards would have promptly escorted poor Simeon and Anna right out of the church. Talk about disruptive.

Far from the idyllic image of the meek and mild Jesus who sleeps silently in the crib, here we have an image of a child who will disrupt the social, political and religious order of the entire nation bringing about the long awaited salvation and liberation of Israel. This infant will be the cause of the falling and rising of many and will bring about the piercing of Mary’s own heart. The prophecies tell of a disruptive future filled with conflict, struggle and pain: not a prophecy most parents would like to hear.

Far from a family friendly, warm and fuzzy holiday, Christmas is disruptive. While we have attempted to domesticate the story to accommodate our cultural “family values,” the story we read in scripture is disruptive…not just for Mary and Joseph, but for us all.

The story is not just the tale of the birth of a cute, cherubic child, but the story of the irruption of the Divine into the world, the incarnation of God’s very self into human form, the initiation of the Commonwealth of God not just in heaven, but here on earth. The picture perfect postcard version of the manicured manger does not do justice to the radically disruptive event of the Divine revelation that comes in human form; spirit and mystery are transformed into flesh and blood, living and breathing and dwelling amongst us.

This God made flesh that we know born as the infant Jesus is not a domesticated deity, meek and mild. No, this is a disruptive Divine interruption of the world’s greed, injustice, cruelty, inequality and violence. God comes in human form to teach us a new way of living and loving that turns the world as we know it upside down.

There is no doubt that to turn our eyes toward Jesus, to center our lives on the Christ is a disruptive act for it forces us to turn our backs on the ways of the world and instead focus on the Christ, the revelation of God that brings the mighty low and raises high the poor, that feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty, that proclaims love over hate, and forgiveness over resentment; a Divine that disrupts the world order of wealth and power, to proclaim the presence of the Divine in a poor, marginalized child born in Palestine.

To focus on Jesus at Christmas is a radical act for the message of the Good News incarnated in this child is one that will inevitably bring conflict and disruption. To re-order the world according to God’s vision of peace and justice will not be without struggle. Nothing in life ever is.

The static unchanging Christmas scene presented to us by our culture, belies the dynamic, disruptive reality of Christmas that invites us to turn our backs on the world’s vision of the quiet peace of the status quo, and gaze rather on a babe who invites us to turn the world upside down that we might know a love beyond sentimentalized consumerism, beyond the façade of perfection, beyond our social scripts. For you see, it is in fact in the very messiness of life, the disruptions of Christmases we deem imperfect that we find Divine perfection. God is made real in the here and now of our imperfect lives.

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