Friday, December 24, 2010

#213-Nativity Scenes and Glossy Christmas Cards with Smiling Faces (and why Johnny Mathis music makes me angry)

Editor's Note: Welcome to my only post in the month of December. But know that much of my chaos that has stopped me from posting much is officially complete. And I got some tutu parties to talk about and other fun topics like speaking in tongues...

Here is my favorite Christmas song. Sufjan Stevens-"Come on! Let's boogey to the elf dance!" (yes it's as fun as it sounds)

I hate movies or plays that paint Nativities as some Hallmark Moment (see above). You know the ones. Where Jesus is the center of attention. There are glorious lights from Heaven shining down on the Baby Jesus like light beams that give you the illusion that either the Baby is about to be abducted by a UFO tractor beam or (and more likely) the reverse is occurring whereby the UFO light-beam has deposited perfect, pretty, white baby Jesus in his comfortable manger as he lays rested. Outside of the amazing lighting provided by the scene, you get the animals staring at the Baby Jesus like they know what's up and they are there to adore Jesus Himself because He is after all, The King.

And in the Nativity scenes as they are basically presented the audience somehow loses the entire purpose of the Nativity Scene. The fact that after all, and as my pastor pointed out, God forgot to reserve Mary and Joseph a room to birth Jesus in . And thus in the stable, where all the animals are...we get a room full of hay. We get a room full of annoying animals. Most noticeably absent from the Nativity scene as typically presented is the excrement. Yes, the animals pooped. And yes I don't think that point should ever be overlooked from the Nativity Scene. The stable smelled terrible. The Bible talks about a star noticed by astrologers alone that knew about the Birth of Jesus. The idea of a light-beam, was rather concocted by those who wanted to hide the animal poo that made the Nativity what it really was: The physical setting to show just how low Jesus would go in order to reconcile us to Himself in love.

Let me repeat: Joseph had to watch where he stepped as he set up shop in the stable as to make sure he didn't step in cow feces. Of course I am being overly simplistic, but the point is that the Nativity Scene was incredibly vulgar from the human perspective. And I would argue that this is what God intended it for. It was not planned as so to be the scene of pretty lights, happy smiles, and self-aware animals that stare upon the Messiah that we have made it out to be. Such a "cover-up" can become slightly irritating to me in regards to Christmas.

Christmas is about God as a baby. Not for an "awww, isn't that cute?" moment, but rather to hammer home the concept that when God was most fragile as a human being, he was sleeping as the lowest of society amongst animals. The baby who should have been killed by Herod, was indeed alive, but it was not some happy ending. Rather, the beginning of the story of Jesus amidst all the cow dung and hay was a rather positive one, only in relation to the ending of the story of his humanity which was that baby all grown up dying in even a more humiliating manner than how he entered into the world.

And i'm not even going to comment on the mess of the birthing process itself. I mean in the 21st century, they still are quite painful to even think about, and the mess involved is extravagant to say the least. Lord knows how much worse a first century birth is when it is performed in a stable and the baby being born is no less than God Himself. Poor Mary.

That is why i cringe at Pretty Christmases now. The ones with the perfect family with the perfect Christmas card with the perfect smiles looking at you saying "such is life." The same Christmases with the Johnny Mathis music playing in the background. And there are trips to the soup kitchens too because there is an agonizing guilt we want to get off our shoulders knowing that we are living a relatively comfortable lifestyle and there exists the lowest of men who are not as spoiled as us.

It is not that Christmas is not a time for the family or a time of thanksgiving/celebration.  It certainly is. But it's as if somewhere along the way we have stopped thinking about the smelliness of the Nativity and what it means to be family and replaced each with focusing more on viewing Christmas as an image of neatness/wholeness and then trying as best as we can to replicate that image of what Christmas should be like.

And we can all sing Christmas Carols with the snow falling all around us outside. And have shiny trucks drive through our town that endorse sugary beverages:

And in such Christmas seasons, we want to live up to an an image of being pretty. Spotlights on the Nativity, Christmas specials on TV, etc....

But love, as I understand it, doesn't revolve around building an image of perfection and loving that image. As if the Baby Jesus can only be Jesus if the scene is presented so perfectly.

No, love is entirely opposite. Love penetrates the "cover up." It's not that there is this whole "everyone is fake and we need to be more authentic" kind of rhetoric. For surely we are all trying to cover up wounds and secrets that we ourselves are too ashamed of to even confront ourselves.

Love does not exist "in spite of the weaknesses" (as if they need to be excused), but rather love is what it is when it takes the imperfections and the weaknesses as an extension of who you are and still loves you all the more.

Let me give an example...

I have one side of the family whose Christmases I attend that I do not enjoy going to. Words and smiles and hugs are exchanged. Pictures taken. The "How Are YOUUUUU?" questions are plentiful. The cordial responses are given. Presents are exchanged which neither side really liked receiving and as you leave, you say to yourself "thank God that's over." And everyone here are Church Going Protestants. And my sweater looks neat.

 Because, the reality is,  for that Christmas Party I played every part except the part of playing myself. If I were to be myself at that Christmas party, I  would have been thought a monster. If I told you how I really am, or the problems in my family, or that this past month has been the most confusing of my life, they would have thought of me as being a depressed Debbie Downer to the whole spectacle of magical Christmas happiness that was going on in the Christmas party. So I covered up and played the part you wanted me to play in this family Christmas.

And then there are those Christmases which I miss dearly. They no longer happen. They usually happen on Christmas Eve (I write this on Christmas Eve), They revolve around the other side of the family. A few of the crucial uniting members of the family passed away in recent years, so the celebrations have ceased.  But the celebrations....there was always fighting. Cursing. Scandals. The most intense games of trivial pursuit you could ever imagine. Insults are thrown. And even one time there was a real fight between two of the sisters over a flirting boyfriend. Mind you they are all adults too. And I loved this Christmas dearly because in the fighting, there was never anything personal at stake. At the end of the night fighting sister would be sleeping on the shoulder of passed out brother and all was right with the world. This was real love. 

This was a Christmas where the drama was never hidden and each person acted as they really were and since everyone really did really love each other, the Christmas messy fighting almost had to happen to be able to really love each other. If one uncle did not voice his complaint about the insult of his receding hair line his sister had mentioned, he would have covered up his resentment and would have went home bitter because he wasn't able to be himself, and thus if someone were to love him that evening (where the cover-up happened), they weren't actually loving him, but an image of him that kept his real feelings hidden. 

Thus, to me, the ugliness of the Nativity scene is what Christmas should be about. The messy scene of the animals and the smelly poo that Jesus was born amongst...perhaps that was a radical image God wanted to portray to us humans of how he saw us in our sinful state from Heaven. Thus the Nativity  is Jesus saying "I know exactly what it is like to be human and the messiness that is implied with all the confusion and loneliness  And it's precisely because I love you with this mess included that I have come down here to be born in the "thick" of it as an indicator that I LOVE YOU and not an image of who you think you should be to me." It wouldn't be that we are to live in the mess, but rather that we should not hide the mess from ourselves or God. It is only when we confront the mess and it's frustration and bring it before God and say "This is me" that we can begin to experience God's love.

I don't know if any the above makes sense. I know that in the past month a lot of mess has come to the surface in myself and those in my family. Initially I wanted to hide some of it. Ignore other aspects of it. Live in denial of the mess. Because Christmas was not about the mess. "Can't this wait until January?!?" But I can also say that I have found love amidst the confusion more than ever with my family. Sure the confusion is still there. But being honest and not "covering" the mess has made me see that perhaps all my Christmases in the past were mere illusions since family member X was dealing with problem Y but told no one about it, and so what I thought was family member X last year was actually just an image of family member X. But now with Problem Y acknowledged and being warred against, family member X can be family member X for perhaps the first time in a long time at Christmas.

In the movie The Christmas Story, the entire film is about this concept of trying to cover up the pains of living and trying to insulate humanity from being itself in order to "enjoy Christmas." Yet when the family tries to be as American and Happy as possible living up to an image of what Christmas should be, more and more gets hidden underneath the surface of each member in the family so they can't be themselves....

See Exhibit A where the main character is obligated to where his pink bunny suit that his aunt made him for Christmas where upon Ralphie finds his entire freedom taken away from him in order to appease the image his  diluted aunt has of him:

"while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

He died for us in the most wretched of  states wherein we were drowned in the horrible excrement that sin is. And because of the messy Nativity and the painful crucifixion we know all the more that whoever we are today with all the loneliness and chaos that lives inside of us that we can't tell anyone about, Jesus died for that person too. Because that is you. And when you begin to realize that Jesus still loves us with this mess included we can begin to confront it, and fight, and get better....

At the end of the Christmas Story the family has finally resigned itself from trying to live up to the image of "perfect Christmas family." Their Christmas dinner was even stolen and eaten by the neighbor's dog. So the family takes whatever courage they have left and descends to the local Chinese Restaurant on Christmas Day (Chinese Restaurants are for the most part open in reality on such a day)... 

There the family partakes in the most American of Christmas celebrations: a celebration where the Chinese employees are singing "Deck the Halls" complete with foreign mistranslation. What happens next is the dinner is actually brought to the table and it is none other than a duck whose head is still on the body itself. The dead duck that they are about to eat is "smiling" at the family. Whereas for most families such a Christmas dinner would be depressing...this family has lost all pretensions of living an image of what Christmas should be and has decided to accept the irony of life as is and laugh at it. Instead of being offended at the duck with the head on it, the family points out the horrible reality to the cook who simply cuts the head off  and expects the family to be completely at peace now with the duck. And they are. They begin to if now for the first time, the family is living life without the insulated comfort that seeks to mute the awkwardness of reality without illusions. Thus love/God/family/Christmas cannot be lived until we see the dead duck head attached to the duck to fully enjoy the duck itself. Translation: We need the awkwardness of what it means to love each other in all it's abnormalities back in our Christmasses to fully enjoy the reason for the season.


  1. Awesome thoughts and ramblings here, Joel! I love how you describe the vulgarity of the nativity. It's not something I have ever thought of before and truly helped me realize the depths of depravity that Jesus had to go to in order that we could be saved.

    When I really consider your description, juxtaposed with the traditional view of the nativity, it tells me how whitewashed our lives as Christians really are - not just at Christmas. We dress up the outside, we use "churchy words" in church while we smile, shake hands and say "Praise the Lord." But how many of us drive to service after screaming at the family that we're going to be late, breaking every natural and physical law to make up for lost time on the drive, have one more snarky word for our wives or children about something you were arguing about at home... then as soon as you walk into the church house it's like Ricardo Montalban from Fantasy Island, "Smiles! Smiles everyone!" We do we think we have to be so perfect?

  2. I love this. Well said. If I understood you correctly, I think I can identify.

  3. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is [e]lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, [f]dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

    God’s Provisions
    10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak [g]from want, for I have learned to be [h]content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things [i]through Him who strengthens me. 14 Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.