Homily: Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord - Mass at Midnight
About a month and a half ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and my eye was caught by the headline of an article that one of my friends had shared. It read: “Sweet Jesus, there’s a ‘hipster’ nativity scene you can buy.” Of course my initial reaction was a face palm, but then I had to click the link so that I could see if this was for real or if it was a joke. Unfortunately, it’s for real.
The producers of this nativity scene claim that this is what they believe Jesus’ birthday would be like in today's world. A “hipster” is someone “who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.” Knowing this, you can probably now begin to imagine what this nativity scene looks like. This “updated” version has Joseph in loose khakis, Mary in leggings and sneakers with her takeaway coffee while posing for a “selfie” that Joseph is taking of the three, with the baby Jesus in the manger, wearing a knit beanie—Mary, making the obligatory “peace sign” and “duck lips”. The three wise men are on Segways carrying their gifts in Amazon Prime boxes. There’s also a “hipster” shepherd with an iPad to spread the good news on Instagram, whose sheep is, ironically, wearing an ugly Christmas sweater (presumably, made out of wool), a "100% organic" cow (it has a stamp on its hind quarter indicating this) is eating gluten-free feed (obviously), and the “stable” is, of course, solar powered. It is extremely clever, to say the least. But I have to be critical of it, because in trying to reimagine the scene for modern times, it loses all of the meaning of the original.
What this nativity scene is doing is making a “cultural appropriation”. What that means is that it takes something from a completely different time and culture (a style of clothing, a cultural practice, or a way of speaking) and forcefully conforms it to fit into its own culture. What often happens with this is that the richness of meaning that the thing contained in its original culture is lost as the surface aesthetics are adapted into the new culture. Sure, the hipster nativity scene has all of the basic elements of the original: the stable, the manger, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the shepherds, the livestock, and the wise men—but it has lost all of the depth of meaning that it has in its Christian context. For example, the original context emphasizes the poverty of the Holy Family and, thus, that Jesus was born into the lowliest of conditions. The modern version drops the “holy family” directly into the upper middle class, leaving Jesus to be a victim not of poverty but rather of “white privilege”.
This cultural appropriation, then, is really an “objectification” of the scene: taking a real, subjective reality (that is, a reality in which real subjects are involved, and, thus, whose experiences cannot be changed) and objectifies it, turning it into a tool for our amusement and pleasure. (Thus, in a technical, but real, sense, this “hipster” nativity scene is pornography: the objectifying of a subjective experience for one’s personal amusement and pleasure.) Can you see what’s wrong with this? My guess is that you can. Perhaps, however, we can look at something even a little more familiar.
A Christmas Story is the 1983 movie that tells the story of Ralph Parker and his quest to get a Red Rider BB-gun for Christmas. I personally love this film, but in many ways it’s a documentary of how the Midwestern middle-class family has also objectified Christmas. For the characters in this film, Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, let alone Mary or Joseph. They have appropriated all of the sentimental parts of Christmas—the Christmas tree, presents, feasting, snow falling on Christmas day, etc.—and have dumped all of the underlying reasons why there even is a Christmas in the first place (namely, Jesus’ birth and the celebration that a Savior has been born). It has all the feels, but none of the substance. But we relate to this, don’t we? Of course we do! Because this is probably how we’ve lived Christmas our whole lives, in part, at least. But it’s not real… it’s not Christmas (at least, not Christmas as the celebration of Christ’s birth).
My brothers and sisters, in order to celebrate Christ’s birth without objectifying it, we have to return to understand the original event and what it meant to those involved and to the world. Imagine, therefore, a people suffering under a great oppression—a people of strong faith in their God who has promised to send them a leader who will free them from their suffering (my mind thinks of the people of Syria or of the lands occupied by ISIS)—who then hear that the one who has been promised has, indeed, been born. Imagine what their reaction might be and you can begin to understand the words of the prophet Isaiah, who so beautifully described what that experience might be like: that people who walked in darkness and gloom would see light, that those who had experienced the yokes of their oppressors and the rods of their taskmasters would see them smashed, and that those who had boots that had trampled in battle and cloaks that had been rolled in blood would see them burned, for their oppression had truly come to an end. This was not trite sentimentality, this was a reality to which the hearer was subject.
Then in the Gospel Luke describes the fulfillment of this prophesy. He weaves a wonderfully subversive narrative that completely up-ends the worldly idea of power. Although Caesar is demonstrating his power over the world, the long-awaited Savior is born in the lowliest of circumstances: into a poor family in a cave—where animals take shelter—because they couldn’t afford to rent a bed for the night. Then angels appear in God’s glory… and to who? To Caesar? To Herod, king of the Jews? No! They appear to shepherds in a field! They appear to those whom the world considered to be “nobodies” and proclaimed this Good News. And what news it was! This should have been proclaimed to the world’s great rulers, but instead it was given to poor shepherds first. My brothers and sisters, this is not sentimentality: every bit of this is dirty, stinky, and yet gloriously real.
My brothers and sisters, Christmas is not “pretty”: it is shocking, awesome, tear-inducing, and inspiring. If this has not been your experience, then you have been celebrating a false Christmas (or, at least, an incomplete one). The reason why we come here and make everything seem so special and beautiful is not to give you warm fuzzy feelings, but rather to make real once again the experience of that first night of Christ's birth: Angels appearing in God's glory and crying out that this life of darkness in which you have been living is now ended. The reason we walk into a brightly lit church in the darkest part of the night in the darkest nights of the year is to remind ourselves of this. This is not to escape the reality of our lives but rather to give fullest relief to the full reality of our lives. Christ is born! The Savior, the one whom God promised would bring peace—real peace—and who would rule in peace and justice forever.
The man-made magic of tinsel on trees and warm apple cider and snow falling in the moonlight is a false Christmas. Christmas is people who acknowledge their suffering, and their inability to relieve themselves from it, suddenly seeing that their hero, who will come to relieve their suffering, has come and so they rejoice! This is the day of our salvation and we give lavish gifts to one another as a sign that our poverty has ended and that we will now live in a time of prosperity under our newborn king who has come to save us.
My brothers and sisters, if this is not the Christmas that you are celebrating, then it is time to be converted. Turn here tonight and acknowledge that, indeed, there is darkness in which you have been walking and of which you have been powerless to overcome. Acknowledge that God has never stopped promising you that he would be the light in that darkness. And acknowledge that Jesus, born into the darkness of a cave to poor parents in a little, unknown town of Palestine is the fulfillment of that promise: the fulfillment that is continually made present to us on altars throughout the world whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.
If you are not ready to acknowledge these things, then you are not ready to celebrate Christmas. Do not be afraid, however, for the glory of the Lord is ready to appear to us again here at this altar. If only you would adore him, you would make yourself ready. Venite adoremus…. Venite adoremus… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 25th, 2016