Do the snowy images on the news of Syrian refuges remind you of Christmas? They remind me of cosy Nativities and Christmas cards, and I find it very disturbing.
Perhaps the problem is we have 2000 years to sanitise and sentimentalise the stable. The reality is that Mary was heavily pregnant and a subject of scandal at home, when she and and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they were homeless and she had to give birth in a filthy stable. A few week later, whatever accommodation Joseph had since arranged in Bethlehem was lost and they had to flee for their lives as refugees to Egypt.
Gold frankincense and myrrh
Much is made at Christmas about the symbolic meaning of gold frankincense and myrrh, gold representing his kingship, frankincense his divinity, and myrrh, used embalming showing he came to die. But it seems to me if you are about to run for your lives and all you had was what you brought for a short visit to Bethlehem, then gold Joseph could use set up a new home and business in a foreign land was was a really inspired gift. Not so sure about frankincense, it would have been good for clearing the animal smells out of the stable*, but they weren’t staying. It is an antiseptic which may have been useful for Mary. But the most useful of all was myrrh. Not long after childbirth Mary faced a long journey sitting on the back of a donkey† getting away from Judea as fast as they could travel. Myrrh is a local anaesthetic.
When God became flesh and dwelt with us he was identify with us and our humanity with all our joys and friendships but also with and with all suffering, pains and troubles. Jesus is the only one who every chose where he would be born. He chose to be a homeless refugees, identifying himself in his humanity with the weakest and most vulnerable. We need to remember his priorities, even at special family times like Christmas. Being a Christian is being transformed to be more and more like Jesus as the Word becomes flesh in us too. We need to remember his priorities, even at special family times like Christmas.
Christmas is a really important time for family and friendship and giving presents as an expression of out love (however much it can degenerate into a nightmare of impossible people to buy for and the snares of reciprocity. As Sheldon put it “You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.”) But in our giving, it is worth remembering the first ‘Christmas presents’ weren’t given to friends or family, they were given by wise men to a homeless family about to become refugees.
Getting you goat
Are you one of those people who are impossible to buy for? Suggest they send a contribution to Syrian refugees or the Philippines. For something more Christmassy you could ask your loved ones to get you a goat for Christmas, or some chickens. It is not just about the disaster or the crisis that is capturing the headlines. A goat can lift a family in Malawi out of poverty. And when a goat has kids one of them is given back to Oxfam to help another family out of poverty. Depending on how people feel about you and how difficult you are, you could as them to give you a pile of manure. Those are UK links, if you live in the US, check out the Oxfam America site including Kids for kids.
But Jesus is calling us to much more than just being generous at Christmas. He want us. He wants us to follow him, to give our lives to him over again, to be transformed by the power his Spirit into our own unique likeness of him, our own expression of his love to our family and neighbours, the people we sit beside in church, to the poor and vulnerable, the hungry and refugees.
* There is some debate about the place Mary and Joseph stayed, but it had a manger for feeding livestock so we are not too far wrong with the idea of a stable.
† I know, there is no donkey mentioned in bible, but I am pretty sure Joseph would have arranged transport getting his heavily pregnant wife to Bethlehem. If they hadn’t a donkey going to Bethlehem they had the money to buy a set of hooves when they left, and donkeys were inconspicuous.