Growing up Catholic, I was fond of seeing manger scenes that populated my home, my church, and my neighborhood each December. I loved the serene figures, the cuddly animals, and the figurines of visitors from far off lands.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to notice not only the feel-good side of the manger, but the radical side, too. And that part gives me pause. 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 the lines we draw between ourselves and others. It turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.
This story begins with the approval of a woman. An angel is sent to Mary, not to Joseph. It’s Mary who gets to decide — by herself — whether the Jesus story will unfold. Her “let it be” makes everything possible. As the story goes forward, women are in leading roles, 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 propels his public ministry forward. 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. In the story of Martha and Mary — a different Mary sits at his feet, a place reserved for men. Jesus encourages this gesture and erases the gender 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, our religion, or our country matters more than others. The Magi — visitors from different lands, different cultures, different religions — are welcomed and given an equal place in the subversive story. Perhaps the most erased radical line is the one between rich and poor. The manger reminds us of a baby born in the humblest of settings to poor parents from an impoverished community. He’s not born in a castle 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, healing, and reconciliation into the world. Same with us.
One of the most shocking moments in our political season came last May. As The Hill reports, the man who is now president-elect declared during a speech in Bismarck that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say it.”
Equally shocking is the lack of push-back by self-styled religious people. Let’s face it: We worship wealth and power. The manger says otherwise.
The Christmas story is a direct assault on how we perceive importance. It challenges the notion – then and now – that the powerful and wealthy deserve their privilege and that we should all strive to be like them. It also defeats the notion that the poor, the homeless, and the refugees don’t matter – they’re slackers anyway. Maybe this is why King Herod wantedJesus dead. This baby would spend his life challenging the king’s value system. Woe to the rich; blessed are the poor. The first are last; the last are first. The ones considered the least among us are the greatest; and the ones who consider themselves great are actually the least able to bring God’s unconditional love, compassion, and healing into the world. This Christmas story is meant to turn our world inside-out. And so are we.
This sight of poor refugee parents and a humbly born baby surrounded by dirty shepherds and visitors from other religions and races and cultures should jolt us. It’s meant to. The manger shows us a world far different than our own, one that we’re being summoned to 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?
We all have a long way to grow into making the Christmas story our own.