Recently, I got email that took my breath away. It read: “Homeless mother with infant in need: No local shelters have any room. Can anyone help?”
Is that how the news of the first Christmas would’ve been shared if email had been around 2,000 years ago? Would it have read: “Traveling couple with newborn in need: Pregnant, rural couple trying to register delivers baby. There is no room for them. They’re making do at the local animal shelter. Can anyone help?”
We love the Christmas story, but our love has smoothed over its rough truth: Giving birth in a barn is horrific. We love the Holy Family, but Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were nobodies in a world that just didn’t care. We love the shepherds and wise men. But shepherds were shunned in Jesus’ day: Only losers took that bottom-of-the-barrel job. The magi were despised foreigners: Pagan stargazers, who had gone off the res, following a star for some crazy reason.
Everyone in the Christmas story shouldn’t have been there. All Joseph knew for sure was that his fiancé hadn’t been impregnated by him. He could’ve outted Mary publicly, but instead decided to dismiss her quietly. But Joseph changed his mind because he was told in a dream – of all things! – to go ahead and marry her. Mary, an unwed, teen-aged girl, is told news that could get her killed. Legally, she could’ve been stoned to death for conceiving a child out of wedlock. Instead of refusing that life-threatening prospect, Mary simply, supremely said, “Let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38).” Since when did roughneck shepherds get all sentimental? When did astrologers, who coldly calculate the heavens, become giddy road trippers, bringing gifts, eager to throw a baby shower?
Joseph shouldn’t have risked his reputation. Mary shouldn’t have risked her life. The shepherds shouldn’t have risked leaving and losing their flocks. The “wise” men shouldn’t have risked their necks traveling into enemy territory. But they all did. And they witnessed a miracle: the arrival of the Christ as a messy, bawling baby. Some way to save the world! To do that you need power – not helplessness. To change the destiny of humanity and history you need imperial might – not an innocent child. The nativity scene we have prettied up and toned down is actually a big, hot mess that makes no sense: A baby born where it shouldn’t be in the midst of an odd collection of people who should’ve been smarter than to be caught up in such foolishness.
But “the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 1:25).” Judging just how smart the “wisdom” of men is by reading today’s headlines, we could do with a whole lot more heavenly foolishness. You know: The foolishness that forgives seventy times seven. The foolishness that prays for abusers; blesses enemies; turns the other cheek; goes the second mile; that clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, blesses the weak; that puts itself last so the last can be first; foolishness that is willing to take up a cross to follow an un-credentialed Jewish carpenter who lived briefly and died violently and arose unexpectedly.
We churchy people mostly do things decently and in order, but the Christmas story tells us about uncommon people who undertook unconventional choices, unorthodox actions, and deliberate risks to help midwife the birth of God’s Way, Truth, and Life into our suffering world.
Given that, maybe the thing for us to do is not to celebrate Christmas, but to incarnate Christmas: To let the Christmas story be born again and again through our everyday lives, choices, relationships, and deeds.
How can you be present for the birth of Christ; for the arrival of God’s saving way at your job where tensions are running high – or in a once-loving relationship that is now cold? How can you live differently to “foolishly” welcome Christ’s way of peace into a conflict you are part of? How can you “foolishly” follow the star of the One who calls us to love God and love neighbor in this world where such love is in such short supply?
Lots of us foolishly max out our credit cards at Christmas. How can we instead foolishly max out our hearts, filling them until they overflow with love, so we can give that love away without cost to those who need it most?
What “foolish” way can you be part of Christ’s arrival today? Find a “foolish” way for Christ to be born in you so that you can come alive in him. Take a risk. Open your heart. Welcome Bethlehem’s Child – for as you do, the Christmas story will become your reality. The miracle of Christmas past will become the miracle of your Christmas present. It is here. Open the gift.