Have you ever returned to a place from your childhood only to find that it’s not quite the way you remember it? I’m not referring to the changes that have taken place. I’m talking about the things that aren’t changed but somehow don’t seem to be the way you remember them. You had a Thomas Kinkade or Norman Rockwellesque image in your mind but when you returned, it wasn’t quite as cheery as you remember. We romanticize our memories into something that, though built on reality somehow morphs into fantasy over the course of time.
I am afraid we’ve done that with the biblical account of the nativity.
There is what is written in the gospels of Matthew (1:18-2:12) and Luke (2:1-20). Then there are our childhood memories of Christmas at church and home. Peppered throughout are all of our favorite Christmas carols. And then there is the march of time that somehow combines them all into something that isn’t real. Inadvertently, we end up with a romanticized version of the birth of Christ which bears very little resemblance to what has been written in those two gospels for two millennia.
Whatever the actual date was, the original Christmas Eve was surely traumatic for Joseph and Mary and definitely not “silent.”
Let’s begin with government intrusion into private lives. We all know how upsetting and aggravating that can be! How happy are you that our government is telling us where we can and cannot go for Christmas, how many people we can welcome into our homes, and what you better have on your face when out in public? How do you think Joseph and Mary felt about being ordered to go to Joseph’s hometown (some 70-80 miles away) with her ready to deliver a child just because someone in Rome wanted to take a census?
Tempers in Bethlehem were surely frayed by all the people who had left years before who now expected adequate and comfortable housing. Think about having a family member who is in need of medical attention in a town you haven’t been to in years (so no one remembers you). Not only is there no doctor available, there isn’t even a hotel room available! I cannot imagine how frenzied Joseph must have been. Especially when explaining to the local innkeeper his wife’s situation and being told “there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). I’m no Joseph but I do know myself. I would have been both angry and scared. It’s not likely for the principals involved that there was a sense of “heavenly peace” (especially for Mary who had never dreamed of such a thing as epidural anesthesia).
Anger. Fear. Pain. Not exactly the kinds of things we tend to associate with Christmas Eve. It wasn’t exactly quiet and peaceful in whatever accommodations the holy couple had to settle for. But neither was it “silent” outside either. Not long after Jesus was born some shepherds in a nearby field got a visit from an angel. God’s glory was manifest and the poor unsuspecting shepherds “were filled with great fear” (Luke 2:9). Then a single angel became “a multitude of the heavenly host” who were “praising God” (Luke 2:13). Not exactly a “silent night” in or around “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” “[H]ow still we see thee lie”?
Jesus was born amid political turmoil in a cave or a stall (as evidenced by the reference to a manger). Spiritual beings clothed in God’s glory terrified some local shepherds (even though they were bringing “good news of great joy”).
I don’t live in a peaceful or silent world. Romanticizing the nativity of Christ only makes it unreal and irrelevant. I live in turbulent political times. People are about to be in charge of the government who share a lot of the same qualities as Caesar Augustus some two thousand years ago. Though I feel fortunate to live in the hospitable South I still run into people every day who rob me of my joy with their narcissistic “get out of my way” attitudes. I’m terrified, not by the revelation of God’s glory but by its seeming absence.
I need to be able to identify with Joseph and Mary and the world into which Jesus Christ was born. And I can if I’ll read the biblical text and strip away all the gloss and warm fuzzies that time has added.
I’m worried about this Christmas (so was Joseph). I might not be able to provide my loved ones with what I think they deserve (like Joseph). I’m upset that things aren’t falling into place as I want them to this Christmas (like Joseph). I’m unhappy with how the current political situation is directly impacting my family (like Joseph and Mary). I’m worried about what I’m seeing and hearing (like the shepherds).
When you strip away all the gloss and fantasy from Christmas that’s built up over the centuries, you just might find that the birth of Christ has a lot more to speak to worried and fearful hearts than we remember. If you are struggling this Christmas then you are in a position to have a very meaningful observance. I can’t do very much with silence or stillness because that’s not my current experience. But rotten politics, narcissism, and fear? That I can identify with. And that was always there in the biblical narrative to begin with.