Reinterpreting Christmas

My Christmas Eve sermon was based on an image that was popular on Facebook in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  You can find the image here.

I attempted to engage an artist buddy of mine on this but he didn’t seem very game.  The image is very arresting.  It grabs at your attention as soon as you begin seeing what is going on in the image.  This isn’t just any young couple, this is the Holy Couple, reinterpreted.  Mary and Joseph in a modern context.  You begin to see the Biblical references as soon as you look at the image in detail.  Dave’s City Hotel (King David), which has a new man_ger (manger).  Advertisements for Weisman, Good News, Starr, Shephard.  Mary’s wearing a Nazareth hoodie and is clearly pregnant.  Joseph is Jose.  I could close to 20 different Biblical references.

The question becomes, why do this?  Why reinterpret the Biblical events in modern terms?  I’m sure from an artistic sense it helps bring the story alive, make it more relevant.  Not something just from long ago and far away but something that could happen today, in our town.  People have always done this through the ages and across cultures.  We make the story a bit like us, and that draws us closer to the story.

But while I like this image a lot, I have concerns about what the intent is.  I think the artist has provided us with his intent, both in how he chooses to depict the couple and with an interpretative verse on the side of the phone booth – Ezekiel 34:15-16, which reads:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

The verse is one about justice.  And if that is the interpretative verse for this image, then I want to look at it again and see what about justice this graphic directs me to.

I notice that the couple are not like me after all.  Not in terms of ethnicity, at least.  Their features seem to indicate Hispanic background, reinforced by the “Jose” on his shirt.  Their manner of dress seems to indicate a lower economic strata, reinforced by their presence in the rain outside of a convenience mart in an arguably less-than-ideal part of town.  They look uncertain, and their two small bags seem to indicate they are traveling light and perhaps have run into some problems.  How do these relate to the verses about justice?

Well, how do they relate to the original story, first of all?

Mary and Joseph weren’t ethnic minorities in Bethlehem.  They weren’t illegal immigrants or refugees.  They would have looked and sounded like everyone else.  While they were likely simple people and certainly not wealthy by our standards, they probably weren’t any poorer than the average citizens of Bethlehem.  They weren’t going to Bethlehem in hopes of getting a hotel room, as Bethlehem was so small that it likely wouldn’t have such a thing.  They were probably planning on staying with family, which is why they were in Bethlehem in the first place.  Why that didn’t work out we aren’t told, but the overall narrative indicates that they probably stayed with family after this first night, and for the next month or so as well.

What is the justice then, in the original story?  Is it a matter of economics or race relations?  No.  The justice that the original story is bound up with is far deeper and more pervasive.

This is the problem I have with the graphic.  It takes us away from the issue of the virgin birth of Jesus as the redeemer of the world and places our attention almost exclusively on our own issues and concerns.  I feel as though the artist wants the viewer to answer the question Well, would you give this couple a place to stay?  What are your views towards other ethnicities?  What prejudices do you harbor based on fashion or economic status?

These aren’t the issues with Jesus’ birth.  Jesus comes to eradicate social and economic and ethnic prejudices and injustices, to be sure.  But He comes to do so as part of his larger purpose of defeating Satan, sin, and death.  I worry that the graphic diverts our attention away from the saving work of Jesus, at the beginning through an unlikely and otherwise obscure couple,  and instead asks us to focus on ourselves.

If we are perturbed by the couple and admit that we wouldn’t likely help them, we are to feel guilty no doubt.  But what if we empathize with them appropriately and can honestly say that we would help them out, would invite them into our home (and not just our garage)?  Should we feel good about ourselves?   Smug?  Superior?  Dangerous ground, there.

Whether I empathize with the couple or not, I need the baby in the manger.  I need the Christ-child because the depths of my sin run far deeper than whatever social commentary someone arbitrarily uses as a metric.  This graphic is not the Christmas story, for me.  It is at best a mirror on part of my sinfulness, part that the Christ child comes to suffer and die for.  But I still need his suffering and death even if I’m happy with what I see in this particular mirror.

The point of the Christmas story is not social commentary.  Rather it highlights the simplicity with which the Son of God enters creation.  The creation He spoke into existence.  The creation which will deny him and crucify him.  The creation that his death and resurrection will restore.  All themes the first few verses of John’s Gospel pick up on and highlight for us.  God once again uses the imperfect, the unworthy, the simple to come to us and bring us his good gifts.  A tiny baby.  Tap water.  Wine and bread.  God meets us where we least expect him, where we are least worthy of him.  Not when we are feeling smug about our social consciousness but when we are lost in our sin.  He does the unimaginable, he saves us.

What we find is this isn’t justice at all.  It is purely and completely mercy.  Completely a gift.  We do not get what we deserve, rather we get his goodness.  The justice He brings ultimately isn’t for us, but for evil. For Satan.  He is condemned and we are pardoned.  He is sentenced and our chains are broken.  Jesus truly is the priceless gift above all gifts.  Merry Christmas.



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