Christmas Was Grittier Than We Remember

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
       — G.K. Chesterton

Refugees and massacre: A Christmas story
There’s this part of the Christmas story that we skip most times. The baby Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem, the angels appear all shiny and singing five-part harmonies in the sky, the Magi and shepherds stroll in to worship the infant Messiah, right there next to the cheerful livestock, and it’s all beautiful and wondrous. But then there’s this next part …

Herod is furious that the Magi skipped town without telling him the whereabouts of this upstart king of Israel, and he orders the massacre of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who are two years old or younger. Meanwhile, an angel has warned Joseph of the impending danger, and Joseph takes Mary and the Christ child and they flee to Egypt until Herod dies.

The context of Christmas is not quaint or peaceful, and the “Silent Night” likely was not silent very long once boots started kicking down doors. The Christmas story begins with tired, scared, soon-to-be parents wandering homeless through the streets, unable to find a place to stay, and it continues with our Savior beginning His tenure in the world as a refugee, fleeing the wholesale slaughter of innocents.

That part doesn’t work too well in the Sunday school nativity flannel graphs, but it’s a key part of the Advent narrative. Christ is born into a world of real and present evil, injustice, and suffering—and only when we stare that reality in the face do we get a proper grip on just what this Hope flung from heaven in human form means for us, for the broken world.

Turning the world upside down
It’s some story we’ve been swept into, and Christmas chronicles a vital chapter: our Creator-King’s descent into a world of dust and decay through a line of kings and prostitutes and liars. He who once reveled in the joy of creating a universe for a time reveled in the joy of creating a chair with calloused hands. That which was beyond the comprehension of this world, that which was bigger than the world itself, was contained in a stable, a country, a single life of suffering and joy and laughter and sorrow and turning the world upside down. The launching of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.[1]

“He has broken the rod of the oppressor,” sings Isaiah.

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away,” sings Mary.

These songs tremble and treble up through the pillars of history, soaring amid the architectures of the now and pealing out from ringing cathedral bells into the not yet and the mystery and the madness of that which shall be.

These are the songs of a liberator who hears the groans of the oppressed and the lost and hurls Himself into the fray as one of us. And these songs tell a vital chapter in our own epic tale—the thrilling adventure which we find ourselves caught up in even as we sing its mighty stanzas.

Now but not yet: You have a part to play
John Donne once wrote: “Death be not proud…. Death thou shalt die!”

I like that. Mostly. It’s one of those frustrating “now but not yet” things that says: your Captain has come and will come to secure your final victory, but until then we remain in enemy territory. Though we are redeemed and have been promised that our liberation and the re-creation of this world will come, the fractured things still remain fractured. There are very real tears to be dried on the faces of the forgotten in South Sudan, there are very real captives to be set free in the here and now of brothels and sweatshops of South Asia, there is very real racism and injustice with very real consequences in our own country, there are lost souls and despairing refugees and broken economies, and we are faced with an inevitable and at times seemingly illogical response: Hope, action, a life of verbs fueled by humility and love.

Like the priest in Les Miserables, “[We] view the world as a vast disease, and without essaying to solve the enigma [we] endeavor to staunch the wound.”

In this adventure in which we find ourselves participants, Christmas marks the point at which our Captain Liberator King began to solve the enigma for us.

Andrew Shaughnessy is a writer for MTW. He has served on the mission field in South Sudan and South Asia. He has also written for Serge, RootsRated, and Cityscope Magazine, among others.

[1] Last sentence here paraphrased from N.T. Wright

Andrew Shaughnessy, Reflection Dec 22, 2016
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