A friend of mine in a Facebook post comment thread mentioned that the Christmas story is often told as a children’s story. I think there are several layers to this characterization. One the Holy Nativity is often seen as a cute and comforting story, a G movie safe for the viewing pleasure of the entire family. Secondly, as a cute, safe and comforting story it takes on the character traits of the Disney fairy tale (in contrast to the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales). Lastly the Christmas story is often simply kitsch, as most nativity sets for sale in Christmas isles clearly demonstrates. The above is all part of the celebration of Christmas that knows nothing of the season of Advent.
Here, and at the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconicler, I took up reflecting on the season of Advent as a time to stay woke. But what now in this twelve day season of Christmas (yes Christmas day is simply the first day of Christmas, we have Christmas all the way until January 5th.)? The seasons of Advent and Christmas are seasons of the Holy Nativity, God’s revelation in and through a the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. As such can we see the Holy Nativity not as some comfortable story but something that stirs something in us, even something that disturbs us from slumber?
I think so and I think the Icon of the Holy Nativity is more helpful in this than the typical nativity set one can buy on the Christmas shelves in stores.
Take some time to reflect on this icon and it’s meaning: at its center is Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger. If you are familiar with iconography, the cave and the manger should remind one of icons of the empty tomb, the manger is a sarcophagus the cave a tomb. Also, Mary is lying down, she has after all just given birth. In one corner two midwives are washing the baby Jesus. These midwives not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, are part of a type of realism, there surely were midwives, but also hearken back to the story of Moses. Midwives are an important part of the story of liberation and salvation. And Jesus is not only a second Adam but also a second Moses, come to deliver God’s people. In the other corner sits Saint Joseph, in conversation with an old shepherd, or is it the shepherd who is attempting to draw Joseph out. This is a great deal to take in. Joseph, perhaps has his doubts about what all this means. How is it that the messiah is born in such rough conditions and greeted by such rough persons. Does God reveal God’s self in such common rough and uncouth ways? But then Above Joseph are the Magi traveling following the sign in the heavens. These are men with power and wealth, but they aren’t Isrealites and Children of Abraham. One may look at this icon and simply see confusion. The whole story here depicted in form and color may not make much sense. How is this a holy image. How in such common place things, midwives at work, a feeding trough and Mary and Joseph silent puzzled without answers, a depiction of a holy and revelatory event.
Can it truly be that this even changes everything. That God is found not only in this crazy story, but in that little infant born so long ago, Jesus of Nazareth. Is this how liberation comes? Does this shock and disturb? Perhaps it should. In this infant God dwelt in our midst and is now united with the entire cosmos.
But the story of Christmas and it’s celebration doesn’t end here: the next three days we in Celebrating God’s revelation in coming as a little child, we mark the first martyr, Saint Stephen, remember the Evangelist Saint John the Apostle, and Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents. If you haven’t guessed this isn’t a children’s story, nor Disney Fairy tale. This is a celebration and a story that isn’t afraid to face the worst humanity can offer. It certainly is a match for facing our countries continuing struggle with the Racism that has been woven into the very fabric of its history and policies. It’s also a story and an icon that can encompass our questions, doubts, confusion and despair, and say at the same time God has come, liberation, justice and revelation have come in the midst of all this horror and confusion.