Reimagining the Nativity

by Rev. Canon Stewart Murray, Incumbent at St. Barnabas, Ottawa

published in ‘Crosstalk’, December, 2017

Call me old fashioned, but I still like to send Christmas cards to friends and family every year. I usually try to find ones that depict the nativity scene with the Holy Family in the stable complete with angels, shepherds, and assorted animals. I have often chosen one using copies of famous paintings of the Nativity, or one year even an icon of the holy scene. This year, however, I found it difficult to find a card I liked. There were many lovely ones to be found but, in lights of the events in our world, the depictions were too pristine and almost artificial; they pictured a scene that seemed so idealized that it no longer conveyed the drama and truth that is the Incarnation.
The first Christmas the Holy Family was living during an oppressive occupation of their homeland and was forced to go to Bethlehem by the authorities to register for a census and no doubt for taxation. They had little. Mary was about to give birth and the only place available was a stable. Not the tidy and pristine stable of the Christmas cards, but a stable with the sounds, smells, and mess of the working stable of a busy Inn. The Incarnation was not into a world of peace and tranquility, but one of strife, poverty, oppression, and hopelessness.

In light of this understanding of the Incarnation, what would a modern nativity scene look like? Would it be the Holy Family in the tents of a refugee camp, surrounded by the noise of conflict and the cries of malnourished children fleeing violence in their homelands? Would it be on an overloaded boat of desperate people on the sea seeking to find a better life? Would it be in a shelter for the homeless? Or in the tents of a safe injection site in a city park?

Such images speak to me of a God who seeks us out, to meet us in the midst of the brokenness and messiness of the world of today, and not some sanitized nativity of our imagination. The coming of God in the person of the infant of Bethlehem was the moment that God entered into time with the purpose of healing the broken relationship with all of us and with His creation. The Incarnation was God’s response to our prayers for healing, peace, and hope in our world and in our hearts. The cost of this reconciliation was the Cross and the Resurrection, for that is the final chapter of this part of the story of salvation.

Our Parish communities are places where the Incarnation continues to be found and experienced. Our Parish communities are where the powerful and the privileged, the vulnerable and the powerless come together in a common desire to know Christ and His grace. In the Sacraments we encounter the fullness of Christ’s healing presence; in worship we renew our relationship with Christ and one another. Together, we seek to bring hope to our world through service and our willingness to engage one another and the stranger at our doors.

This is not an easy mission. It will at times be difficult, messy, a source of conflict and frustration, but it also holds the possibility of great healing, joy, and transformation.This Christmas, let us all accept the invitation from Jesus to be His body in the world today, that we might be the next chapter in the story of the Incarnation.