Ben Wideman is the Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a ministry of University Mennonite Church at Penn State. He blogs regularly for The Mennonite online.
I love this time of year for its beauty and simplicity. I love it for its symbolism and meaning in our lives. I even cautiously love what our cultural traditions have added – the gifts and cards, the pageantry and the reds and greens of Christmas trees, flowers, candy, and packages.
As we move through the Advent season we prepare for the birth of Jesus; the mysterious dwelling of God among us. Call it the birth of a Savior, call it the arrival of God’s peace, call it light breaking the darkness…whatever terms you use it is so beautiful and sacred.
I’m grateful for so many things about the Christmas season, but I’m also grateful for its brokenness.
You see I’m grateful we have a story in front of us that is messy. When we slow down and really take a look at what is our Christmas story, we find some difficult things. We find a young girl in Mary who has discovered she is pregnant before getting married. We read about a man named Joseph who is contemplating divorce or at least breaking off a marriage before it even began. We read of strange visions and dreams involving supernatural beings – things that in our world today would probably require some serious questions about their mental health or stability.
We learn that Mary has to undertake a lengthy trip while pregnant with a lack of suitable accommodations at the inn. We read about a plot from King Herod which means the family has to flee the area for their own safety, again with strange dreams and visions dictating their lives.
Underneath all of our pageantry and wreaths, Christmas trees and stockings, underneath the cozy manger scene and cooing doves are some really complicated life challenges.
We struggle to appreciate Mary and Joseph’s discomfort in the story. We don’t think about the fear in their lives, or the worry and circumstances that they faced. We don’t spend much energy wondering how they navigated the cultural stigma of unwed pregnancy, or being parents of a child that the King wants to kill. We get to turn the page and a few chapters later Jesus is a grown man.
I wonder what we might be overlooking if we forget about their humanity and vulnerability. How often do we consider those things as we set up our manger scene in preparation for Christmas?
I’m grateful for this broken Christmas story because I think we have a tendency as human beings to gloss things over to hide the broken things in our lives.
When we overlook the brokenness present in our reality I think we can miss an important opportunity to connect deeply to Jesus Christ and the Gospel story. We miss a chance to breathe deeply, and to ground ourselves in our faith tradition. We might miss a chance to have a good cry, to mourn or to lament, or even to just be present in the moment. We live with the danger of quickly saying, “this is just part of God’s plan.” We hurry to turn the page to the next chapter in the Christmas story, and turn the pages on the stories unfolding in our own lives. Maybe it comes from our desire to fix what is wrong, or to solve the problem. We sometimes forget to just pause and be present in our brokenness.
We want to present the best picture of ourselves, and in turn, the biblical story. We want to show the best side of things and avoid talking about the messy parts of our lives and our faith.
Why do we do that? Why do we feel so much shame in being vulnerable and transparent? What are we trying to protect?
We want to shift focus to what comes next, rather than sitting with our present reality. It is hard for us to do that in our own lives, and it is hard for us to do that in the lives we come into contact with. It takes some real patience and commitment to offer someone your presence, rather than offering a solution when someone shares about a difficult issue in their life.
I know as a pastor I’m guilty of offering a quick fix, or a solution to some pain or trial that a person shares with me. I must remind myself to slow down and to let the person just be. I forget that God is present here in these moments of vulnerability.
The Bible I read seems to indicate that God is present in our lives – not despite our brokenness, but BECAUSE of our brokenness. The Bible I read speaks of a king born amidst the humblest of humble beginnings, a king who arrives in the world from an unplanned pregnancy to a family who will quickly become migrant refugees. The Bible I read is filled with brokenness that comes with the promise that God will be with you always.
What might it look like for our churches to join a church culture shift which makes room for people who have historically been marginalized. Not in spite of their brokenness, but because all of us, whether gay or straight, male, female or queer, whether we are black, white, brown, or any other shade under the rainbow, we are all made in the image of God.
God walks with us whether we feel like we have it all put together, or if we struggle to get out of bed in the morning. We live out that duality that we are all broken, and also that we are all perfectly and wonderfully made.
Part of the mystery of the difficult and broken Christmas story that many of us know so well is that it sets the table for the strange and miraculous things that are about to take place. The broken and perfect Christmas narrative provides the spark for a new light to shine forth. It is in that place that God was moving – right in the middle of all that messiness. And these are the places – messy and beautiful – where God continues to move in our world.
This Christmas season when we set up the manger scene in our homes or read the Christmas story, my prayer is that we can celebrate God’s presence in the brokenness.
Come Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace.
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