Rethinking the warm fuzzies of the manger scene
I used to look at a Christmas Nativity scene with sentimentality. Often those scenes are staged or framed to produce warm, fuzzy feelings in response to the serenity of the baby Jesus lying in the manger. But in these days of worldwide pandemic I look at them and recognize suffering.
I was formerly a campus minister and once I took a group of students on a guided homeless ministry nighttime walking tour of downtown Toronto. Our experienced guide had ministered to Toronto’s homeless for years. He exposed us to the harsh realities people who were homeless faced.
One, among many, lessons I learned that night was where people who were homeless tend to sleep. Someone who is homeless often sleeps in places that aren’t designed to be beds, for example by the front doorsteps, on a park bench, in a car.
That experience made me look at the Nativity scene with new eyes. Our culture has domesticated the biblical story so much that we are no longer shocked by what we see or read. The baby Jesus was sleeping in a manger, a box meant to store animal feed, not to hold babies. Jesus slept where babies were not supposed to sleep. It was a symbol of homelessness.
I know recent biblical scholarship is debating whether "no room at the inn" was a mistranslation of "no room in the guest room" and whether it was an indoor stable inside a private home, which was apparently typical back then. So did Mary give birth in a home surrounded by relatives and friends rather than alone in an outdoor stable as we typically imagine it?
Still, it begs huge questions for me. Why wouldn’t they offer the more comfortable guest room to a young mother in labour and move others to other parts of the house? And if there are many friends and relatives around, why wouldn’t they take turns to hold the baby, or lay Him in a proper bed rather than the manger, even if the stable was inside the house? Surely that is not normal.
Regardless, seeing baby Jesus in a feeding box should not fill us with warm sentimentality. The sight of homeless people sleeping on the streets should not do that to us either. Rather it should make us sad and mad. Sad at the suffering of others and mad that we live in a world where this is happening, and happening often. So often, in fact, that we may have become numbed to it. Have we become numbed to baby Jesus’ (and Mary’s) suffering?
We often reduce Jesus’ sufferings to His torture and crucifixion on the cross. But maybe we should start recognizing that Jesus’ sufferings already began at birth.
Theologian Marva Dawn makes an insightful complaint about this in Morning by Morning: Daily Meditations from the Writings of Marva J. Dawn (Eerdmans, 2001).
We have put the comma in the wrong place in the Apostles’ Creed. We often say, "Born of the virgin Mary, He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried."
Rather we should say, "Born of the virgin Mary, He suffered, under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died and was buried."
Do you notice the immense difference it makes? Jesus didn’t suffer only under Pontius Pilate. He suffered from the very beginning. … Jesus suffered when He was born and laid in a manger.
Jesus not only came to suffer on the cross. He came to suffer His entire human life. Jesus suffered the Pharisees’ opposition. He suffered His disciples’ failures. He suffered the crowds and their demands. He suffered the Romans’ oppression. He suffered the loss of equality with God when He came in human flesh (Philippians 2:6). God, in Jesus, suffered.
Here is a "God with us" (Matthew 1:23), a God who knows intimately the world’s homelessness, oppression and suffering.
Here is a God who leaves the power and comforts of heaven behind for the vulnerability of a helpless, homeless newborn in a manger.
Here is a God willing to suffer a lifetime to right the wrongs of the world, "To proclaim good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (Luke 4:18–19).
Here is a God willing to do whatever it takes to bring salvation to the world, even death on a cross.
Shiao Chong of Toronto is editor in chief of The Banner, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.