Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don't Forget the Baby!

When I was a teenager, one of the ministers at our church forgot his newborn son in the nursery following Sunday services. His wife picked up their older son and left instructions with her husband to get the baby. After the young minister finished his post-service responsibilities, he got into his car and left for home. He forgot the baby. Fortunately, the church nursery was staffed with loving volunteers who kept the baby until the husband made it home where he was quickly made aware of his mistake and then promptly returned to collect the forgotten child.

Once upon a time when I was a young minister myself, with four children all under the age of seven, my wife and I were always counting heads. We did not want a similar story told of us. We navigated those preschool years with success and without ever “forgetting the baby!”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure others can say the same. The Church in general, for instance. Every year, we celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus. His is a birthday worth celebrating! He is the ultimate expression of God’s love for all humanity. Christians spend weeks rehearsing Christmas productions, decorating, cooking, buying gifts, and listening to those familiar and well-loved carols. We re-tell Bible stories about wise men and shepherds, we light candles, sing, attend services and Midnight Mass. From Thanksgiving to December 24, the season of Advent is a flurry of activity anticipating the arrival of that precious baby. And then, on December 26, when the Christmas pageants are over, we go home and leave the baby lying in the manger, abandoned on the altars of our sanctuaries.

Given that the modern Church spends so much time celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is interesting that only two of the four gospel writers even bother to mention the circumstances of His birth. In fact, Jesus Himself never mentioned His own birth. He never asked His followers to celebrate it in particular, or to remember it as He instructed them. to remember His death every time they drank from the cup or broke the bread. How telling.

Now before I get in trouble with all Christmas lovers out there, let me say that we have much to learn from this familiar story. We should reflect upon it, not just this month, but on each and every day. To do so, we will need to strip away the glitter and gold, ask the orchestras to pause and tell the choirs to pipe down long enough for us to hear the true story. Remember the circumstances of His birth as they really were, not what we’ve made them to be, and recall that He was born to a couple of poor refugees. Do not overlook that His mother was a simple teenager whose family and neighbors were highly suspicious of her pregnancy. Do not forget that He was born in a stable full of noisy livestock, cow dung and flies. The scenes from Bethlehem invite us to admit Jesus into the reality of our lives. He comes to the dirty places in our world because it is only when we let him in that He can pull us out.

We should also remember and celebrate that, despite the evil King Herod’s best efforts, Jesus did not die as a baby, but grew to manhood. Jesus, the man, would not conform to the pious wishes of the religious establishment. He smashed their erroneous image of an invisible God with a God all too visible as He ate with sinners, walked with tax collectors and spoke openly to harlots and prostitutes.

Too often our response to the scandal of the Christmas story is to sanitize it. We attempt to scrub Jesus clean of His humanity. We do so in order to keep Him neatly preserved in cathedrals and sanctuaries. Moreover, we prefer Baby Jesus lying in a manger to bloody Jesus dying on a cross. Baby Jesus doesn’t talk. He doesn’t tell us to love our enemies, or forgive those who have wronged us. Baby Jesus does not remind us that we are broken, nor does He broach the topic of our sinful choices. We prefer stained-glass Baby Jesus because He resides in the lofty, unreachable corners of our church buildings and not in our own homes. We assume that keeping Him in a porcelain creche eliminates the probability of Him walking into our schools, offices and boardrooms.

As long as Jesus remains an icon, bound within the four walls of the church house, we can manage our lives the way we want without interference. We relegate Jesus to our westernized nativity scenes and, quite like Herod, prefer that He never reach His adult years. At Easter, we Christians celebrate the fact that the grave could not hold him, only to lock Him away in the manger eight months later.

The problem with Jesus is that He won’t stay put. The grave could not stop Him, the manger could not keep Him, and no church can contain Him. How ludicrous that we would even try.

Yes, celebrate the birth of the Holy infant, but do not leave Him that way. He grew up. Maybe when you weren’t paying attention. Don’t attempt to lock Him up. Embrace the man who speaks, loves and heals. Invite the man who challenges the religious and welcomes the sinner—who lived, died and rose from the dead.

This Sunday, after church, don’t forget to get the baby.