By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
How do we celebrate Christmas in the year 2020, this “unprecedented,” “undefinable”, “apocalyptic” and dumpster-fire-meme-inducing year?
How do we preach “good news” in this year that has overwhelmed and exhausted us with ongoing disaster after disaster, tragedy after tragedy, and incalculable death and loss? How do we fill our people with the light of love, hope, joy, and peace when it feels like this year has held anything but? No matter what, we can’t “pretty up” Christmas this year. There’s no way to pretend that anything is normal, or that even keeping it quiet and simple will be anything but a shadow of celebrations before. Instead of the wonder and cheer of previous years, this year Christmas just feels a little too risky. But what if that right there, that notion that Christmas is a little bit daring, perilous, precarious … what if that is the good news?
We’ve heard the story so many times before that it’s become comfortably familiar, like the warm Christmas sweater we snuggle into this time of year. The tender glow of nostalgia paints a comfortable, welcoming picture into which we can almost place ourselves: we bask in the humid warmth of the cozy, wooden stable; we smell the sweet hay; we hear the melody of the animals – the treble baaing of the sheep, the bass of the cow’s low, the rustle of the hay crackling at our feet. We savor the honeyed aroma of contentment and peace. With Mary, we ponder the perfection of this moment heralded by the angels. Peace, good will, and joy to all! This is the magical moment when we hear that all is right with the world, the perfect birth story of God’s own perfection incarnate in the sweet, snuggly Baby Jesus. The story is so familiar that we let its nostalgia mask the scandal.
My favorite Nativity icon is this Orthodox scene.
What I love about this icon is its starkness in comparison to other Nativity images, its reality, its daring. A cold, bleak cave replaces the cozy stable scene. Joseph, outside the entrance, ostensibly keeping watch, listens to a hooded, shadowy figure that represents the Adversary whispering “what if?” into his ear. What if it’s all a lie, a dream? What if, because we all know virgin birth is impossible, Mary has been playing him the fool? We see the conflict in Joseph’s brooding posture. Inside, Mary reclines in a pool of red –the residue, perhaps, of a labored birth process? What would it be like to give birth in a cramped, hard, uncomfortable and inhospitable space with no soft place to land? And the baby, instead of cozily snuggled in Mary’s arms, lays not amidst warm crackling straw, but in a stone box that looks less a feeding trough and more an ossuary swaddled tightly in bands of cloth, set deep back in a crack or niche in the wall of the cave….remarkably similar to the family tombs that dotting the Bethlehem hillside. And the gifts the magi will bring include the embalming herb, myrrh. Jesus is hunted as a rival by a jealous Herod. Even at his birth, the gospelers foreshadow Jesus’s death. Jesus is not safe.
Preacher David Schlafer writes that Christmas is about the “birth of the unexpected in the most unlikely of circumstances.” Over the years, we have heard the story so many times it has lost its edge. Christmas has become wrapped in the glow of nostalgia. We forget that Christ came into a politically dangerous world where Rome oppressed Judea with military dominance and heavy taxation. We forget that Christ came to a rigid world much like ours, where the religious and social class structure were unyielding, where the sick and outcast and foreigner were synonymous with the unclean or immoral. We forget that Mary and Joseph were “nobodies,” completely ordinary working-class people who lived in a backwater town in a backwater province of the Empire.
Such a dangerous, difficult world isn’t hard for us to imagine. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like our everyday reality. Jobs to do, taxes to pay, life marching onward against the backdrop of the empire’s power struggles and economic domination. These are not the things we want to focus on at Christmas…and so we settle for the comfortable fairytale, the illusion of peace and contentment wrapped in cheery paper at the foot of the evergreen tree; we hold to the familiar nostalgia of sweet baby Jesus, unassuming and unthreatening, simply there in perfect simplicity. Warm, snuggly, safe. But there is nothing about Jesus that is safe.
This icon reminds us that at the scene of his birth all is not cozy. And yet the good news of salvation, Schlafer notes, is that “the incarnation of God comes in the form of an illegitimate child; the birth announcements come to lowlife shepherds and pagan foreigners… God did not choose to come to earth at the highest point of life, but at its lowest point. God did not choose to enter the safe world of decorated churches and hallowed sanctuaries; instead God chose to enter the rough and tumble world of people with jobs to do, fields to tend, and government breathing down their necks at tax time.” Christ, the Savior, is born unexpectedly in in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Little wonder, then, that the first words of good news, the Gospel, counsel us “Do not be afraid!” This icon resurrects the inherent risk, the precarious danger surrounding the birth of this child, and points us to the paradoxical “good” news present at the very inception of this particular Child’s life – Savior because of, and through, his own death, his own fully embodied gift of self-offering, self-emptying, unconditionally gracious Love that is the very nature of God. Christ comes amid the muck and mundanity of everyday life rife with what ifs, loneliness, conflict, pain, shadow, death and loss—if we but seek, accept, and trust the light and Life to all he brings.
And, of course, this icon is not all stark realism. Good news surrounds the core promise, and the whole of creation receives this Child who redeems the whole of God’s Creation. God comes first to shepherds, representing those who are poor, marginalized, outcast, lonely and alone. God invites and includes them first in the great joy for ALL people. God comes to pagan strangers and foreigners, depicted here in this icon as both bearded and unbearded, those who are older and those who are young. God comes to the women, two of whom are inevitably midwives (a subtle nod to Shiprah and Puah) who would absolutely have been present and, likely, members of Joseph’s own extended family (since they returned to that area for the Census). The star still shines, the animals keep watch.
The paradox, this dance “between” – good and evil, light and shadow, joy and despair, gift and loss – is the reality of our human existence. In that, 2020 is not really “unprecedented, not terribly unlike any other year. What makes us feel like Christmas is “special” in years past has little to do with the reality of God’s presence coming into the muck and mundanity, and instead has largely been driven by our nostalgia around traditions. That’s not to say Christmas celebrations are not worshipful or beautiful experiences of God’s presence. They are. But beauty and warmth and glowing light are not really what Christmas is, or ever has been, about.
Christmas is about what’s Real. No matter the circumstances of our lives, we can trust that God is present with us. And the first message of Christmas is “Do not be afraid.” In a world filled with things to fear, a world filled with war and violence and oppression and degradation, with sickness and poverty, and waste and disaster, into this world Christ is born and the good news of God’s overwhelming, unconditional Love breaks in. Love sets us free – free to embody the light and love of Christ that lifts people from bondage and captivity to fear. And what is more real, or terrifying, than offering our very selves to God (to do with as God will) and to each other?
So take a risk this year. Do not be afraid. This year, keep Christmas real. Keep it messy. Keep it with joy, hope, peace, and self-offering love. Keep it a little dangerous and terrifying and awesome. Because THAT is what Christmas is all about – shaking us out of our comfort zones to meet a God who discomfits and disquiets us with unconditional love and grace from his first coming to his coming again. For that, may we rejoice!
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we embody care and concern for each person we encounter. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, enjoying fine food and whiskey, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
 Image for purchase at: https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/2020-Dumpster-Fire-2020-Meme-by-jtrenshaw/46745823.LVTDI