The Discomforting Joy of the Holy Nativity

Back in December as the refugee Crisis in the Middle East and Europe was in our  flight1                                  news cycles a meme went around that had a few iterations and said something like “if only there was a seasonal story about refugees” and one of the images used was images of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.

Peter Wehner  in his December 25th New Your times editorial speaks of the revolutionary aspects of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, or more to the point of the belief that Jesus as the messiah was the incarnation of God. Wehner wishes to remind us that the Holy Nativity , god come to us in a human infant, transformed our understanding of humanity.  The belief in the incarnation gives value to the physical world and more importantly our humanity, that it didn’t have before that.  Wehner wants to remind us of this radical and revolutionary story, that we often domesticate and make innocuous and thus meaningless. miniature holy nativity

We seek the meaning of this season (though we tend not to think that this season extends from Advent to the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple).  It is a well worn claim (and fuels some of the “war on Christmas” meme, that gets trotted out by certain media outlets) that much of our celebration of Christmas has little to do with the meaning of the Holy Nativity.  Here we might bemoan the consumerism of the season (especially leading up to Christmas day) or the ways in which the story is reduced to Kitsch, and there are innumerable innocuous and kitschy nativity sets around to back up this complaint. It’s interesting we seem to both be aware that what Christmas is for us culturally somehow misses he mark of its meaning even for Christians for whom it should make a profound difference in their views and actions in the world and oblivious that this is the case and carry on with those same celebrations.

I write this on the fifth day of Christmas of which there are twelve.  Even Christians who are aware of the twelve day season don’t pay attention to it much (as it gets lost in New Years celebrations) and then Epiphany/Baptism of Christ and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple are hardly kept in mind in our understanding of this season of the Nativity.

It’s hard to keep this all together. Also, if one looks too closely at  the Season of Christmas, the first 4 days are a buzz kill on our celebration.  First there’s the feast of Saint Stephen, and the story of his martyrdom as the first martyr (protomartyr).  We get a little break from all this with the Feast of St John the Evangelist, but with him we get his great mystical theology, and then the feast of Holy Innocents, infants and toddlers massacred by King Herod the Great for fear of the threat the Messiah born in Bethlehem would produce revolt and his overthrow .  With the feast of the Holy Innocents we are where we began this post and the flight into Egypt. For it was this threat from Herod that led the Holy family to flee.

The coming of God as a babe in the manger doesn’t only show us the value of our humanity it also in the midst of joy and celebration plunges us into the depth of human evil and suffering.  So, we are right to be reminded of the radical nature of this story, and how it challenges the comfortable and powerful.

Yet, perhaps we end up on the surface of this season, because we rush to its meaning and relevance.

The season of the Nativity and the Incarnation is long from the end of November to the 2nd of February the liturgical calendar invites us to contemplate God come to us as a human being, born of Mary.

The icon of the Nativity

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the  Holy Innocents/flight to Egypt

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, Baptism of Christ

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and Presentation of Christ in the temple,

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All bear deep and continual  mediation and reflection.

Take the time this season to meditate upon these stories of God who tabernacle, set up tent, with us ,like God did with the Israelite’s as God brought them out of Egypt and slavery.  Allow yourself to be transformed by this contemplation.

The meme and Peter Wehner’s editorial point out that this story should make a difference.  It does, though a the moment we are seeing that like the infant Jesus most can miss that anything has changed at all, and so we continue even after millennia of celebrating Christ’s birth we still have yet to be changed by this new reality and we use it not to contemplate its great mystery but to hide from ourselves and the mixture that is our humanity.

Let the joy of this season transform you, let it be true joy. A joy that rejoices in an amazing revelation of God and our humanity that won’t allow us to lightly pass over the great evil that lurks in human being.

And indeed we may never finish fully exploring nor ever plumb the depths of this mystery of God become human and human being taken up into God. May we be transformed as we encounter and are moved to action by this mystery.