The Holy Family by contemporary American artist Janet McKenzie
With our desire for novelty we can become tired of the Christmas story, year in and year out. But it should always come as a shock. A challenge to our sometimes all-too-comfortable ways of thinking and being.
Jesus’ beginning starts as a scandal. An unmarried and expectant mother, whose fiancé, Joseph, was at one time (as we are told) thinking of divorcing her. Best outcome, gossip and exclusion; at worst, a stoning. She and Joseph share the complexity of so many human relationships. As that pregnancy follows its course, we see a couple forced onto the road at the whim of a foreign occupier. Just another census statistic. Like so much of humankind today now living under the heel of an oppressor. And then no comfortable home birth, but a delivery room strewn with straw and animal dung. No warmth but the steaming sides of beasts. Nothing sterile here. No Mater Private. Nothing of the cuteness of Christmas cards. Simply sharing a universal human condition. Soon, as victims of one who lusted for power and every other vice, they will flee, to be dislocated as refugees, to spend lonely years in a foreign land. As so many millions do today. Can you see? This is how God comes among us. How God begins to share our life. With understanding and empathy. The common touch. A oneness with us. God knows us.
And who pays this divine child the first courtesy call? Whom does God welcome to this event of such cosmic proportion? The simple shepherds. They may seem a rather endearing lot. But collectively, in Jesus’ time, they barely had a toehold on the bottom rung of the social scale. In a sweeping generalisation, shepherds were then regarded as inveterate liars, so were never to be admitted as witnesses in legal disputations. Furthermore, with the daily doings of their trade, their dealings with beasts, dagging and crutching, they were regarded as existing in a state of long-term ritual impurity. And “abiding in the fields” (as that seasonal song goes) shepherds may not have had too much time for synagogue attendance or Temple going. In every respect – thoroughgoing rogues and sinners.
Yet, as we know from Luke’s gospel at least, these field-folk, these men-at-the-margins, were graced as first witnesses to God’s unique being-with-us. According to Luke’s account, God reveals himself first, not to the religious hierarchy, not to the power-brokers, or to the ones with all the social cachet. No. God is made manifest to the least expected. The fringe-dwellers. God’s preferential love is for the seemingly least loveable. The first ones to kneel and look God in the eye.
That is the Advent, the end-of-year, message. God is, indeed, a God of surprises. A God who risks everything for love.
Like all these Christmas characters, I am sure that in the course of the year you may have experienced a difficult relationship, or had plans that went wrong, or found yourself in a messy situation, or been displaced from your comfort zone, been excluded. The good news is that God knows your experience, my experience. Not in theory, but in the lived reality. And if you look hard, you will find God there. In the thick of it. Furthermore, if the spirit of this community, which you love so much, is in your very marrow, then God will call you to reach out in compassion and service to others who experience similar needs and challenges. That is who we are all called to be. And we are honoured in that calling. Privileged, really.
God has come to you this year many times. I am sure of it. And God will come to you again seasonally this Christmas. I pray that you will be both surprised and blessed, in like manner, in the new year to come. But don’t rest there. You be a Christmas blessing and a gift to others in turn.