Last Sunday our church had its Christmas pageant. The children dressed up in homemade robes with rope belts and paraded down the aisle. They were adorable in their innocence and my heart overflowed, as it does every year, when the story came to life in their sweet little faces.
I love this tradition. Quite frankly, it’s adorable. What’s not to love? Bonus–it also has theological meaning and it serves a pedagogical purpose. My dream would be to do more church-wide pageants for children.
I’m also aware that this lovely tradition carries with it a danger: we cute-sy up the Christmas story. By making it a feel-good story for children, we put it on the level of all of our other Christmas stories. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Polar Express. All are cute stories that leave us filled with Christmas cheer and a sense of sweet happiness.
But the nativity story was never a feel-good story.
When Matthew and Luke recorded their versions of Jesus birth, they did so with a particular purpose: to demonstrate that Jesus, born to Joseph and Mary, was the Christ, the King, the Messiah. This wasn’t a cute story, this was a subversive one.
Right from the angels’ announcements to Mary and Joseph, we see God’s agenda is to overturn the world order as we know it. Listen to how Mary responds, not with meekness, but with the rallying cry that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
While we’re oohing and aaahing over the cuddly sheep in the field, with shimmering angels illuminated by a twinkling star, we should be asking ourselves a different question: What if the angels brought the good news to the lowly shepherds because these were the only people who would perceive it as good news? The rest of them, safe and warm in their homes and palaces, wouldn’t so much rise to shout with joy as rise up in anger. News that the last will be coming in first isn’t good news for everyone.
See, when we’re on the side of the proud and the powerful, we’re on the losing side of this proclamation. We’re the ones in danger of being scattered, brought down and sent away empty—and that’s when the Good News of Christmas becomes distinctly bad news. The only way to hear this message as the Gospel, which literally means good news, is to take the side of the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised.
Christmas is ultimately about making a choice. It’s our yearly opportunity to decide which gospel we’re ready to believe in. Are we placing our hopes in the cute-sy baby Jesus of the nativity play? The one who makes us feel warm, cozy and safe? Or are we placing our hopes in the revolutionary God who dared to overturn our world order—which is anything but safe?
It’s easy, of course, to say the latter. With the daily deluge of tragic news from around the world, our souls hunger for the world-changing God. But I am reminded that choosing that gospel requires setting aside our own hopes and dreams in favor of the larger promise of justice and mercy for all of humanity. It requires the daily sacrifice of making the choice against our own self-interest in favor of the World’s.
This is where the going gets tough.
But it’s also where the joy of Christmas comes most alive. While the Christmas story might challenge us to get outside ourselves, it also reminds us that the revolution doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone. That, in fact, the most revolutionary act of all has already taken place. Sure, we’re called to live into this Christmas promise of peace on earth. We’re called to work as hard as we can toward that coming reality. But we’re not called to bear the burden on our own.
So as we move toward our Christmas celebrations, may we feel both challenged and renewed. My we all find ourselves searching for the difference we can make in the world, stretching and yearning for a promise that was given long ago. And may we also find ourselves doing this not out of fear but out of joy and hope.