I love the music and colors and hope of Christmas. But I’m trying to be honest about how messy and disturbing it is, too. The messiest part is embedded in the heart of the story. Let’s name it for what it is: scandal. God sullies Mary’s reputation — and, some would say, God’s own reputation — by making her pregnant. What kind of salvation strategy is that? Where is the universe’s police force? God needs to be reined in.
After the birth, the mess only multiplies. Think smelly barns and shepherds. Think Roman oppressors. Think pagan gurus whose visit leads to mass infanticide at the hands of the paranoid Kind Herod. This is good news? This is peace on earth?
Yet we’ve succeeded in covering up the scandal through pictures of glowing stables and cross-shaped stars hovering in indigo skies. Some have skirted around the embarrassment — and sectarianism — of traditional Christmas by taking Jesus out of the festivities altogether. Santa Claus, frosty snowmen and candy have more than filled the gap.
Should we be surprised? Scandal seems to show up in every other act of the Bible’s salvation drama.
The prostitute Rahab is granted an exemption from Israel’s genocidal destruction of Jericho, then joins the chosen people and becomes an ancestor to Jesus.
Ruth, a foreign widow, boldly presents herself at the bedside of a sleeping business-farmer, Boaz, and soon becomes another Messianic ancestor.
Ruth’s great-grandson David commits adultery with Bathsheba, murders Bathsheba’s husband, takes her as another of his wives, and grooms their son Solomon as heir to the throne —another forebear of Jesus — even though David’s older son, Adonijah, also had a claim to the throne.
The adult Jesus does nothing to clean up the old pattern or to rescue his image. By attending parties, Jesus accrues a reputation as a drunk. By associating with women of troubled backgrounds, such as Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman, Jesus leaves himself open to intense scrutiny.
The church doesn’t try to stop the pattern either. In fact, it courts even more scandal. By eating the bread and wine of the Eucharistic meal, early Christians are suspected of cannibalism. By allowing women and Gentiles to fully participate in the church, they violate old taboos of God’s people.
Clinging to the story
So what is the point of God using scandal to push forward the divine plan to heal the world? And why do I find myself clinging to this story and treasuring it, rather than discarding it?
Mostly, that is beyond me — except that I’ve recognized two things the story does for me.
First, it convinces me that God is not someone who must preserve a reputation at all costs. God enters the fray of human history and does things that might be misunderstood, challenged, twisted around in the retelling, or sanitized. People may want to clean God up, but God really doesn’t care about a pristine image.
Salvation for a broken humanity is a messy business. Clean, logical remedies have been found wanting: Just look at all the artificial joy we create at Christmas. You have to get your hands dirty if you want to do a proper repair job.
Second, it reminds me that my ideas of salvation are skewed by my limitations of vision. I can either stand above the scandal of the Incarnation, handing down a verdict on whether it is good or not — or I can hold my judgments lightly and live in the story’s mystery.
I can decide that the troubling details disqualify the good news that also runs through the story. Or I can decide to let the good news trump the perplexing parts. The latter seems the humblest and healthiest response.
Good news abounds
I need to remind myself that the story abounds with good news. God kept Mary and her fiancé Joseph in the loop, explaining what was going on, pointing out the long-term plan. The angel’s appearances and dreams said: “Don’t be afraid.” There was no secrecy and no manipulation.
Mary’s poetic Magnificat and Joseph’s compassionate actions show that neither felt God had wronged them. They accepted that the bearing of God’s Son was a holy and blessed calling.
Why didn’t God wait until Mary and Joseph were safely married to start the pregnancy? I suspect God wanted to dispel any doubt that Jesus’ appearance really was for everyone. Mary’s experience tells other pregnant teenagers that God identifies with them, too — along with anyone else whose circumstances are embarrassing or messed up.
Other such identifications would follow in Jesus’ life. Jesus would invite himself to the house of vertically challenged and financially corrupt Zacchaeus. He would allow a prostitute to rub his feet with her hair. He would die on a cross between two criminals. God’s story is wrapped up with marginalized people.
Given the choice between a glitzy Hallmark Christmas and a murky holiday tinged with scandal, I’d take the latter. It’s real. It’s robust. And it has nothing to hide.
Byron Rempel-Burkholder is an editor and writer from Winnipeg, Man., and a member of Home Street Mennonite Church.
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