A Christmas fit for our troubled times

Like many families, we have a nativity scene at home that gets displayed every Christmas. It contains all the usual suspects: animals and angels, wisemen and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and baby Jesus. Our nativity scene is wooden, brightly coloured, and fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s safe, comfortable, child-friendly; like Lego, it doesn’t unsettle you, it doesn’t ask any dark questions.

That’s the thing with Christmas, we usually prefer the safe, child-friendly version. Even when our children have turned into adolescents who prefer to sleep in on Christmas morning, we don’t want to let go of the innocence and escapism of a nativity Christmas.

But a nativity Christmas feels a long way from the real-world carnage of the last year. Whilst 2023 is a year further away from COVID, quarantines, and lockdowns, there’s still been a lot to trouble us: Israel-Hamas, hostages, and a humanitarian disaster; the war in Ukraine grinding into a bloody stalemate; an endemic refugee crisis; a dangerously warming planet. Maybe you can add your own list of personal disappointments from the last year into the mix.

This kind of end-of-year review makes it hard to utter lines like “peace on earth” and “goodwill to mankind” without wincing at the huge gulf between our hopes and reality. We can, of course, cling to the forced jolliness of Christmas in defiance of the grim world around us. Or we can take a closer look at the real Christmas story and prise ourselves away from the child-friendly nativity version. In doing so, we can find a Christmas fit for our troubled times.

God doesn’t look down upon human tragedy unconcerned for us

Whatever you believe of the truth, or otherwise, of the ancient story, the accounts of the first Christmas bear hard reading. Think of the characters involved: Mary, choosing to obey the divine command to bear a child, even though it will surely mean social ostracism in her community for conceiving the baby out of wedlock; Joseph, staying with Mary, despite the confusion and personal agony of knowing that her child is not his; the shepherds, the ancient equivalents of social nobodies as the first to hear about the birth of the long-promised king; and King Herod, out of pettiness and paranoia, ordering the massacre of children to eliminate any potential rivals to his thrown, necessitating the new family’s escape to Egypt as refugees. These details are normally redacted from scripts of our children’s Christmas plays. 

It’s into this context that we’re told about the birth of a child named Jesus, meaning “God saves”, and Emmanuel, meaning “God with us”. If you believe this and take it all in, it means that God doesn’t look down upon human tragedy unconcerned for us. He comes into our mess and experiences everything that we do. And he’ll go on, as suggested by the Easter story, to offer himself as payment for the waywardness of us all.

We don’t need a nativity Christmas. We need a Christmas story fit for grown-ups, about the God who comes to us in our brokenness, vulnerable and breakable, to offer us lasting peace. May this story comfort you this Christmas.