Now, if there’s one story that every good Christian knows (and plenty of bad Christians, too), it’s the Christmas Story. (No, not the one with Ralphie and the BB gun. The other one with Jesus and the manger.) We all have pretty set ideas in our minds of what that story looks like, and it frequently involves images we’ve had stuck in there since childhood. You know the ones: the baby Jesus center stage, sleeping peacefully in the perfectly manicured manger, while Mary sits behind him, looking on dutifully with Joseph at her side. The wise men are kneeling in ladder sequence before the infant, while the shepherds are sitting docilely off to the side.
It’s a beautiful tableau, but it’s also pretty, well, dull. I mean, come on! The woman just gave birth, for the love of God!
If the traditional, staid nativity image works for you, by all means, keep on keeping on. However, if you find the traditional images to be not particularly relevant to the contemporary world, difficult to relate to, and rather — dare I say — lifeless, then by all means recast your Christmas story!
And I’m not saying to put in Jennifer Lawrence as Mary or Ryan Gosling as Joseph (though if that brings you closer to God, who am I to judge?). What I’m saying is that Scripture needs to be meaningful for us, and just because somebody 500 years ago thought that the nativity scene looked a certain way doesn’t mean that you can’t create images that are meaningful for you.
Here’s the thing, Mary was poor, young, pregnant and unwed. Sound familiar? Just as today, there were few positions in society less desirable than being a poor, unwed, pregnant woman. Okay, she was “betrothed” to Joseph, which is kind of like an engagement on steroids, but the fact remains, when she found out she was pregnant, she was still living with her parents. Though we don’t know how young Mary was exactly, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that if she were around today, she very well might be on 16 and Pregnant. She could also be an undocumented migrant worker, an unwed urban mother, or any of the various images of poor, unwed, pregnant young women we see in the media. You don’t have to look to a medieval painting to find Mary — she is with us today.
Now, what about Joseph? First of all: Not the father! That’s like an episode of Maury, right there. We don’t know much about him, other than that he could trace his lineage back thousands of years to King David, but clearly that and a denarius would buy you a cup of coffee in first century Judaea. He was a craftsman or a carpenter (depending on how you translate the Greek tekton), and beyond that not much else is known. Oh yeah, except, of course, for the fact that he was going to marry a woman who was pregnant with a child that wasn’t his.
And then there’s Herod, also known as Herod the Great, who, in fact, wasn’t so great. Imagine Tony Soprano with more competent underlings and you’ve got Herod. He was a man of brutal, blinding ambition who would not hesitate to kill anyone in his path, including wives and various members of his own family. Stable, he was not. So, it really isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine him ordering the murder of boys under the age of 2 in his kingdom because they were perceived as a threat to his role as the King of the Jews.
And then there are the wise men or the magi, take your pick. There’s a lot of speculation about who and how many of them there actually were, so let’s just keep things simple: they brought three gifts. Also, the Greek word magoi, which is the term used in Matthew’s Gospel, primarily refers to priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who were noted for their gifts in the field of astrology. Whatever we might think of astrology in a contemporary setting, the important thing to keep in mind is that the magi were respected men from another religious tradition, who, utilizing their own spiritual resources (the stars), had come to recognize a child born outside their own religion as someone very special. Picture the Dalai Lama — actually, picture three Lamas — but the important thing to remember here is that the infant Jesus transcended the boundaries of religion.
And what about the child? Well, first of all, he wasn’t just a child. He was a newborn. Jesus was not three months old, or a year or two old. Jesus was a weirdly shaped, squinty, pink-hued, squawking, coughing newborn. I know it’s easier to imagine him as a couple of months old, since that’s the age when babies stop looking so much like aliens and start looking like what we think babies should look like. But Jesus probably did resemble an alien, at least, sort of, and he probably cried and coughed. And yes, I’ll say it, Jesus soiled his diaper. And the swaddling clothes thing probably came about because it kept him quiet, because he was probably crying. A lot. He probably spit up after suckling his mother, and then he probably slept, and then woke up, and then slept again, and then woke up again and slept again and on and on that first night. Because that’s what newborns do. Or at least, so I’ve been told.
Perhaps this is a little too gritty, a little too earthy. And again I say — if more celestial images do it for you, than by all means use them. However, it’s important to remember that the Christmas story is first and foremost a human story, with very real people with very real hopes and fears. It’s the story of young parents, far from home, trying to find their way.