Growing up Catholic, I was fond of seeing the manger scenes that populated my home, my church, and my neighborhood each December. I loved the serene figures and the cuddly animals and the strange visitors.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at noticing not only the feel-good side of the manger, but the radical side, too. And that part gives me pause. We all have a long way to grow into making the Christmas story our own.
The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world.
The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.
A subversive story
For starters, the story begins with an angel sent not to a man, but to a woman to get her approval to make the story happen. It’s Mary who gets to decide – all by herself – whether the Jesus story will unfold. Her “let it be” makes everything possible.
And women are in leading roles as the story goes forward, too, which is a stark contrast to much of the religion and tradition of that time –and our time, too. It’s Mary who nudges her son out of the nest at the wedding feast and gets his public ministry started.
And the story portrays Jesus repeatedly and unapologetically stepping over the gender lines that existed in his time and in ours, in his religion and in ours, too. The story of Martha and Mary – where a different Mary sits at his feet, a place reserved for men, and Jesus encourages it – erases the lines that we draw even today.
It’s just the start of the subversive message.
The Christmas story also warns us never to think that our theology or our religion or our country is the only one that matters. The magi show up – visitors from different lands, different cultures, different religions – and are welcomed and given an equal place in the subversive story.
Think your religion or your race or your nation is the only one that should be front-and-center? Think again.
Turns our values inside-out
Perhaps the most radical line that gets erased is the one between rich and poor, important and lowly. The manger reminds us of a baby born in the humblest setting to poor parents from a backwater community. He’s not born in a castle or surrounded by royalty and privilege. He’s important not because of what he has or where he lives, but because of how he brings love and healing and reconciliation into the world.
Same with us.
One of the most shocking moments in our political season came last May when the man who is now president-elect declared during a speech in Bismark that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What was equally shocking was the lack of pushback by self-styled religious people.
Let’s face it: We worship the rich and powerful.
The manger says otherwise.
The Christmas story is a direct assault upon how we perceive importance. It challenges the notion – then and now – that the powerful and wealthy deserve their privilege, and we should all strive to be like them. And the poor and the homeless and the refugees don’t matter – they’re slackers anyway.
Maybe that’s why in the Christmas story, the actual king wants Jesus dead. This baby will spend his life challenging the king’s values system. Woe to the rich. Blessed are the poor. The first are last, and the last are first. The ones whom we consider the least are the greatest, and the ones who consider themselves great are actually the least-useful in bringing God’s unconditional love and compassion and healing into the world.
This Christmas story is meant to turn our world inside-out. And so are we.
Hear the angels’ unsettling song
So when we see the manger, does it jolt us a bit? It should. It’s meant to, this sight of poor refugee parents and a humbly-born baby surrounded by dirty shepherds and visitors from other religions and races and cultures.
The manger shows us a world far different than our own, one that we’re being summoned to help create with unconditional love and inclusion.
So, what about it? Do we hear the angels’ unsettling song? Do we accept their invitation to come to the manger and take our place in its revolutionary story?
Are we committed to erasing lines and spreading the message of peace on earth and goodwill to everyone equally?