Down and dirty with Jesus
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).
Like other years, this year has had its share of Christmas controversies. I try to ignore them, but I can’t escape them all. It seems that this year a lot of controversies have been about trees.
Residents of Brussels have protested because city officials erected an abstract structure of illuminated cubes on the Grand Square instead of the traditional pine tree. The town of Birmingham, Michigan, spent $30,000 on a 35-foot tall artificial Christmas tree for public display, a decision some people applaud as being environmentally conscientious and others claim is tacky. In Rhode Island, the battle is over what to call the tree on the State House rotunda, pitting those who advocate Rhode Island’s tradition of separation of church and state against Evangelical Christians.
I haven’t read of any groups boycotting retailers whose advertising mentions “holidays” instead of “Christmas” this year. Maybe people were too busy rushing to the Black Friday sales to care what was on the glossy ads and the signs hanging in the stores.
It should not surprise us that controversy surrounds Christmas. If we look closely at the Christmas story, we see that it is more than a sentimental tale of a baby’s birth. It is downright revolutionary. It has ground-breaking and world-shaking significance, but we tend to miss all that. We get caught up in the debate over Christmas advertising and customs, and we fail to recognize the controversial nature of the event itself.
When we take a quick glance at the story, which is all that most people do most of the time, we see a romantic tale of a young mother, a sweet little baby—no crying he makes, one carol tells us!—an adoring father, doting shepherds, awesome angels, and well-behaved domesticated animals. But the folks who first read Luke’s gospel saw something different than that. And if we want to see something different, we have to get close. We have to get down and dirty with Jesus and take a second look.
When we get close to the story we find a woman barely old enough to be pregnant and a man who is not yet her husband. And the very young woman gives birth to her child not at her home surrounded by family members who love her, but in the man’s ancestral hometown, where she is one stranger among many, unwelcome and unnoticed and alone except for the man who has not yet married her. The young woman, no doubt exhausted from giving birth, bloody and probably muddy as well, lays her baby where the animals stay, where they eat and sleep and drool and defecate. She lays her child among the stench of animal feed and feces.
But then we find an angel announcing that this child born to this young, not-yet-married woman, this child who sleeps amidst the stench and the filth is none other than the savior of the world. This peasant child, born in a stable that is owned by a stranger in a tiny nation occupied by a foreign army under the political oppression of the Roman Empire, is called savior and Messiah and Lord.
Those are not just pretty words. Those are political titles. This unnoticed birth in this unsanitary place is politically revolutionary. It is not Caesar who is savior and Lord, it is not the Emperor who is king, it is not the power of Rome that brings peace, but this newborn peasant child.
And this birth is announced to whom? To Caesar Augustus is his royal palace? Quirinius in the governor’s house?
No, not to the people in power but to who are powerless. This birth is announced by an angel of the Lord to shepherds— laborers whom respectable folk thought were shiftless and dishonest, who grazed their sheep on other people’s land, who were dirty and smelly, who were considered to be not just lowly but lowlifes. This birth of a peasant child is announced to those who are as low as folks can get. And these filthy, dirty shepherds are the only ones who take note of the birth of this child in this filthy, dirty place.
There is nothing glorious or glamorous about this birth. The artists paint halos around these people’s heads. They clean up the mother and make her look rested. They dress her in tidy blue and white clothing and wrap the baby in a clean, white cloth. They leave out the blood and the mud and the animal muck.
But in order to see this story for what it is, we have to get down and dirty with Jesus, because it’s a down and dirty story. But that’s the real beauty of it. The beauty of this story is that it shows us that in Jesus, God has gotten down and dirty with us. In Jesus, God dares to become not just human flesh, but the lowest of the low of human flesh. God dares to be born into poverty and scandal, and the only ones who notice are people whom society rejects.
If all we ever see is the picture of this story as it appears on the Christmas card, we miss the wonder of God coming into a world that is muddy and bloody and full of muck. We will miss out on the miracle of God raising us up by stooping down low.
I’ve ignored many of the Christmas controversies this year, but I haven’t managed to miss all the television commercials. From what I’ve seen, Santa Claus makes out his naughty and nice lists in the Mercedes Benz factory. If I’m on the nice list, I’ll get a white car. If I’m on the naughty list, I’ll get a red one. I’ve learned that memories that last start with gifts that last. And if my husband really loves me, he’ll get me diamond jewelry for Christmas so I’ll be well dressed as I drive the Mercedes I’m getting from Santa.
There is something terribly incongruent about commercials advertizing luxury cars and diamond jewelry for the celebration of the birth of a peasant child who slept among the filth. If Jesus were being born in the twenty-first century instead of the first, and if his birth were anything like the one recorded in Luke’s gospel, I dare say his mother would not be wearing diamond jewelry. He would more likely be born in a homeless shelter than in a hospital. He would never be able to afford a Mercedes Benz. He probably would never own any automobile. He probably wouldn’t be American because our nation is powerful, and Jesus wasn’t born a citizen of a powerful nation. His country was small and insignificant. Probably if Jesus were born this Christmas it would be in a poor and tiny nation that we would do well to remember from our world geography class.
Amid all the commercialism and controversy that surround the celebration of Christmas, we can lose sight of the significance of Christ’s birth. The real significance is not whether retailers hang signs that say “season’s greetings” or “happy holiday” or “merry Christmas.” The real significance is not the kind of tree erected in the public square or what we call it. The real significance is not what is parked in our driveways or left under our trees at home.
The real significance is that God became one of us. God became one of the poorest among us under some of the worst conditions imaginable. God dared to live in a filthy, messed up world. And knowing that can give us the courage to live in a filthy, messed up world. For no matter how low we might feel at times, we cannot go farther down than God went in Jesus. And knowing that God stooped down low might enable us to lift our heads high. Knowing that in Jesus God stooped down to us might enable us to stoop down to help someone whose life is even more messed up than our own.
Someone once said to me that “a pint of example is worth a gallon of advice.” In Jesus, God gives us that example. I don’t want a Mercedes Benz or diamond jewelry for Christmas. I just want Jesus. I just want Jesus to come share my messy life.
But then, I already have that gift. I hope you realize that you have it, too.
The Rev. Dr. Barrie Miller Kirby is pastor of Spencer Presbyterian Church.