The Christmas story is about subversive beginnings, transformations that if you’re not attentive you’ll miss, but that mean a whole world of difference. A subtext runs through this story of a homeless couple’s journey ending in search of a place to give birth. They go where they expect to be taken in and are disappointed; but they finally find refuge in the barn, spending a sleepless night with a few braying donkeys while breathing through Mary’s final contractions.
Obviously, there is nothing pretty about this picture, despite Christendom’s best attempt’s to sanitize and romanticize the scene by robbing those in the story of their humanity: The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. (If they’re somewhere in heaven, Mary and Joseph must be laughing over that one.)
The truth of the matter is that Jesus begins his life much like he will end it: at the margins of an empire; humbly, without recognizable affluence or power, with much blood, gore and difficulty.
Divine transformations—or beginnings that mean something more than merely fleeting resolutions—often happen in exile or at the margins of worldly power and are rarely (if ever) pain-free.
…so an anti-apartheid activist banished to an island prison finds his real life calling there, fortifying himself to lead a country into a new era of justice and reconciliation…
…or an ordinary 14-year-old girl uses her voice to tell the truth about her life as a young female under the ruling Taliban, and must recover from a bullet to the head…
…or, centuries ago, a little-known priest hangs his theses to a church door at Wittenberg and must flee for his life…and before that, a man with the trappings of wealth and power lays it aside to become a friend of the poor and of all creation (we know him as “St. Francis”)…and before him, the missionary Hilda travels to a harsh, inhospitable section of Great Britain to found an abbey, a site of healing and hospitality for wayfaring souls…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, the Gospel of John begins, only to add that this Word came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
What sort of searingly painful tear in God’s inmost being did the birth of Jesus into this world require? To permit and endure this separation, and then to allow One’s very own flesh and blood to be mistreated, humiliated, and turned away from a warm refuge for the sake of the whole world being born again? As a mother, I cannot comprehend it.
But what we do have and may begin to comprehend at least in part is this story as it has been written down for us and read and re-read across centuries. About a new beginning on the edges of an empire, with all the promise, peril and hope that entails. About a God who works transformations from the margins, enlisting the humblest of beginnings to change the world for you and for me.
Only a God who can create something out of nothing can do this sort of thing; and God can do this for you and for me, too, this Christmas or any other day God chooses. This God can birth in our hearts love, joy, peace or hope where there is none. May we be there—at the threshold of our weakness and need— with our doors wide open to receive.