Sunday, 4 December 2016

Pregnant Teenager, Illegitimate Child and Homeless Refugee Family: Reflections on Christmas (3)

by Tom Fairman

Pregnant teenager? Check. 
Illegitimate child? Check. 
Homeless? Check. 

It must be Christmas.

If there was a vote on the favourite Christian festival, I am fairly confident Christmas would be top of the list by a clear margin - from Christians and non-Christians alike. What is there not to like about a new baby? Could anything be as harmless and inoffensive as celebrating the unlikely birth against all odds? Looking on at any Nativity scene, the main reaction is "Ahhh", compared to the reaction to  Good Friday ("Uurgh") or Pentecost ("Eh?"). And yet nice does not always survive a further bit of investigation.

Christmas is actually an incredible scandal masquerading as a nice celebration. Leaving aside the scandals of God becoming man and Jesus choosing to be part of that flawed institution called a family which we have covered already, there are many aspects that would have shocked the Jewish community. From the moment after the angel Gabriel had left Mary, she would have known her life in her community was over. A teenager bearing a child before she was married would have raise eyebrows even 30 years ago, which indicates how this would have been received by the Jewish communities 2000 years ago.

When the census was called and Mary and Joseph had to leave for Bethlehem, they had nowhere to go. There was no plan; the family had turned their backs and word would have spread to the extended family in Bethlehem too. They would have handed Mary over to be stoned and Joseph was under no obligation to support her, being a man and the injured party. Yet he chose to stand by her against the flow of public and religious opinion. This had left them outside of society’s norms and therefore society’s help. They were too stigmatised for people to be associated with, which left them homeless - homeless of their own choice not due to unfortunate circumstances. Why should society help them?
The wise men visited King Herod to ask where they could find the new King of the Jews because it seemed like an obvious decision. To consult the government and the people in power made common sense. They are there to serve the people and should have the wisdom to help. However the response was a genocide of young male children in the region, causing Mary and Joseph along with Jesus to flee to Egypt. An incredible journey to make, which now made them refugees fleeing from the barbarity caused by a government clinging to power. Sounds familiar.

There is also the issue of Bethlehem being seen as a place where nothing good can come from and in addition, there was the fact the shepherds were the first to see the Jesus, not the religious leaders; if you could not do anything else, you became a shepherd. All this makes Christmas so full of scandal, the Daily Mail would have had a field day. Why did God make himself known in this situation? Why was Jesus not born squeaky clean with a fanfare of human praise and comfort?

I feel to understand this, we need to look back to the prophets and their warnings to Israel. There were three groups that were regularly mentioned as needing special attention; the widows, the orphans and the foreigners. These groups were the most vulnerable and ostracised in society and Israel was judged by its treatment of these groups; Jesus becoming one of these outcasts shows where God’s heart is. He is there with the neglected widow, the ignored orphan and the mistreated foreigner. His presence can be found in these groups, with these people that society has written off.
This is particularly relevant now, more than ever; only the names have changed. The migrants and refugees who risk their lives crossing vast distances to escape bloodshed and suffering. The family on benefits who have no one else to turn to, but are told they don’t qualify for help. The children in care who are ignored and allowed to suffer. The homeless who are fined for being on the street and disturbing the peace. The foreign nationals who are now treated with suspicion because no good can come from their places of origin, no matter how far back. This is where God chooses to be; these are the people Jesus came to be with.

This is the ultimate scandal of Christmas: that, when we look for God in the polished, sanitised Nativity scene, the well-dressed services or the polite manners over Christmas dinner, we won’t find Him. Look instead for those suffering, those alone, those abandoned and He will be there. Go volunteer at a lunch project and look into the face of Jesus. Make a shoe box for an appeal so another can feel joy. Set an empty place at your table so you can be part of the scandal that makes Christmas so revolutionary.

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