Sunday, December 11, 2011

What if Bethlehem wasn't nice?

December 11, 2011

Dear Friends,

Thank you, Anne Amili, for your insightful comment. I think that our painful reluctance to sacrifice niceness for goodness says something about our human conflict between appearance and reality. In our lifelong struggle to develop true goodness, we often toy with the idea that maybe if we can make ourselves look “good” we have made ourselves “good.” Wish it were that easy—and, frankly, I think God wishes that too.

The conflict between appearance and reality in the cultural observation of “winter holidays” troubles me deeply. I find it difficult to explain clearly the core of my discomfort, however.

It is an obvious fact that the culture at large does not embrace an orthodox understanding of Advent. While I wish that were not so, nevertheless I think that those who for whom the holidays are not faith-based must in our diverse society be free to celebrate in the fashion that seems desirable to them. It seems wise for us to remember that it is for Christians that Jesus is the reason for the season—not for everybody.

But it is not my friends who celebrate for non-orthodox reasons that raise my Scrooge-like responses. It is the saccharine niceness that creeps into quasi-orthodox expressions of the Advent story that tempts me to an unladylike UNnice response.

Last week on a brief outing I overheard two women talking. They were examining a crèche on display carefully out of hand’s reach in a closed glass case. The expensive porcelain replica of the Holy Family was exquisite—the blond hair and fair skin of the young mother, the quiet dignity in the father’s brooding face, and the baby, wrapped in a blue blanket, sleeping quietly, a small chubby fist tucked under his chin. The little cherub angel watching by the baby’s cradle had red hair. His wings were somewhat tousled (likely the wind he faced while flying in from heaven to attend the birth had disturbed his feathers). In his hands he held a miniature harp whose tiny strings were gold.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” the one woman said.

“It’s so sweet,” the second woman responded. “It’s just so sweet—I just love it.”

At that moment I had a nearly ungovernable impulse to say, “The lectionary reading includes that unnice John the Baptist person who had terrible manners and wore terrible clothes and ate unbelievably terrible food. Wonder why God included that distinctly un-nice character in the story, and why we often leave him out?”

Fortunately, before I opened my mouth, the Holy Spirit reminded me (rather forcefully) that I had no way of knowing whether the women knew the story, or, if they knew it, if they regarded it as binding truth for their lives. It was no time for me to say anything.

It was, however, time for me to think. What is it that makes us want to make the Advent story “nice”? What if God’s goodness in gifting us with The Messiah required Him to risk being "unnice"?

Remembering with you that understanding the goodness of God made real in the Advent story requires seeing past the cultural coat of niceness with which it is covered.

See you next week.


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