Unpacking JesusDec 01, 2020 ● By Allison Harrell
Unpacking Jesus is one of my favorite things about Christmas. I realize that probably sounds a little irreverent, so I should clarify that I mean that in the most literal way. After the Christmas tree has been decorated and the kids’ attention has turned to the more pressing matters of revising their Christmas list or updating their Facebook status (“Decorated the Christmas tree with the fam. LOL!”), I quietly bring out the box containing my nativity set. Each piece is carefully arranged to achieve maximum aesthetic impact while still adhering to the rules of common sense (sheep grouped near the shepherds, other farm animals placed at a respectful distance from the baby). Historical accuracy is also a value in my nativity, as is evidenced by the conspicuous absence of the wise men (although the fact that they are sold separately and cost an additional $60 helped strengthen my conviction in that regard). I was probably in my mid-20s before I discovered that the magi schlepped onto the scene at some point during Jesus’ toddler years – easily the most shocking truth I have ever discovered about Christmas that didn’t involve a man in a red suit.
While I love my current nativity set, there is one thing about it that I wish I could change. Jesus, rather than lying in a manger, is permanently nestled in Mary’s delicately sculpted arms. Now, as a mother, I can certainly appreciate that this is probably the most realistic depiction of the Holy Mother and Child. On the night following the birth of each of my own babies, I was happy to have them swaddled up and laid in their little hospital bassinet nearby. Of course, the worst disturbance I had to endure was an unending procession of quietly efficient nurses streaming in and out of my room. By contrast, teen mom Mary had to contend with restless livestock and a strange band of men who showed up in the middle of the night, amped up on the afterglow of a supernatural encounter and likely smelling like the north end of a southbound sheep. In light of all of that, not to mention the events of the previous nine months that had landed her in a smelly stable on that starlit night, Mary doubtless clung to her baby as the irrefutable, squalling miracle she knew him to be.
Despite that fact, when it comes to nativity sets there is something particularly rewarding about carefully unwrapping the baby Jesus and placing him in his own little manger – the nativity pièce de résistance. Somehow I think having a mangered baby Jesus in the perfect center of the arrangement lends a certain spiritual symmetry to the whole thing, in the same way that having the livestock logically divided on each side gives it a pleasing sense of balance. Of course, the reality is that whether the baby in my nativity set is nestled in Mary’s arms or on display in a custom-fit manger, he is frozen in time as part of a familiar scene that is displayed on mantelpieces, front yards and courthouse lawns throughout the country. If Santa Claus has come to symbolize the jolly generosity of the season, the nativity scene is its spiritual iconography, pointing to the fact that even the most secular among us suspect there’s something going on here that doesn’t have anything to do with reindeer or wrapping paper. And while familiarity may breed contempt, it just as often breeds apathy. For while in a very literal sense I enjoy unwrapping Jesus at Christmastime and placing him in a position of prominence, on a spiritual level (in other words, on a level that actually matters in any real way), I find it much more challenging. Christmas and Jesus, like everything else in my life, can easily become just more things to be managed, easily reduced to a to-do list and a budget category.
The truth about Baby Jesus, of course, is that while he is the “reason for the season,” he did not remain frozen in time as a baby (sorry, Ricky Bobby). If I have learned anything, it is that unpacking the reality of the man Jesus is much more complex than tossing aside last December’s yellowed newspaper wrapping and placing wooden figures in a carefully arranged tableau. Despite my efforts to create a picture-perfect nativity scene, the reality of Jesus’ birth is that it was messy, and not just because of the mud and manure. Author Philip Yancey states that Jesus arrived after “nine months of awkward explanations and the lingering scent of scandal,” noting that when God saw fit to send his eternal Son to Earth he arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favoritism. And as if birth under a cloud of questionable paternity wasn’t enough of a handicap, God also chose for his Son to hail from a region of Palestine that garnered little respect from the rest of the country. Galileans were regarded as country bumpkins, which helps explain the skepticism of many of his fellow Jews: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” During his lifetime, everything about Jesus’ identity challenged conventional wisdom and popular assumptions – but what about today?
Fast forward a couple of millennia and spin the globe to find Frisco, Texas in the year 2010.There are churches aplenty and nativity scenes abound. Still, as I assemble my own nativity, artfully arranging the Holy Family for maximum effect, I begin to ponder the ways that I and so many of my contemporaries continue to miss the mark on the subject of Jesus. Chief among those misunderstandings, of course, is the belief that Jesus was just a good man. This is a seductive and comforting thought for those who are put off by the enormity of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. We reason that while the virgin birth and the resurrection may be a bit too much to swallow, we can comfortably lump Jesus with all the other teachers of antiquity, gleaning from him such helpful tidbits as the Golden Rule. Of course, author C. S. Lewis uncovers the fatal flaw in our attempts to accept Jesus only as a great moral teacher: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell...Let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Whether or not we have misunderstood Jesus as merely a good moral teacher, many of us have fallen into the trap of thinking of Jesus as tame – even wimpy. It’s not hard to understand why. In church culture Jesus has often been reduced to depictions of a fair-skinned man with a faraway look in his eyes and a gaggle of toddlers on his lap. He was called the “Lamb of God,” and what animal is more submissive than a lamb? And Jesus famously championed meekness: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”
Jesus has become, for many, a Mr. Rogers type; the kind of guy you’d let babysit your kids, but never invite to join you for a night out. Yet this is not at all the Jesus of scripture. Philip Yancey notes that Jesus would accept anyone’s invitation to dinner, and as a result, “no public figure had a more diverse list of friends, ranging from rich people, Roman centurions and Pharisees to tax collectors, prostitutes and leprosy victims. People liked being with Jesus; where he was, joy was.” As for our notion of Jesus as a “Ned Flanders” nice guy, scripture depicts the exact opposite, a polarizing, bold, courageous man who fearlessly faced conflict, from angry mobs to accusatory religious leaders, from demons to the Devil himself. G.K. Chesterton said that, “Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the creator.” In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Yancey remarks of Jesus’ birth: “It took courage to risk a descent to a planet known for its clumsy violence, among a race known for rejecting its prophets. What more foolhardy thing could God have done?”
Of course, when I picture Jesus as a kind of “Hi-diddly-ho next-door neighborino” cut from Ned Flanders cloth, it is easier to think of him as a Mr. Fixit – another of our modern misconceptions about Jesus. Perhaps this is where I get most easily hung up. After all, I’m willing to acknowledge that my life needs a good repairman from time to time. Cracks of doubt appear in my foundation, leaks of anger spring up, and there are times when I just really want to slap a brighter coat of paint on the whole thing and be done with it. The problem with that thinking, of course, is that it refuses to acknowledge the reality that the whole ramshackle mess of me is sitting on top of a massive fault line. I’m a disaster zone, complete with a sign hanging on the front porch warning that I’m a danger to the health and wellbeing of any who come near – not excluding my own self. The reality is that I don’t need a repairman. I need a hero. I need a miracle.
Fortunately for all of us, Jesus didn’t appear on the scene in that Palestinian stable with the intent of fixing anything. He came to breathe life into deadness, to transform the disaster zone of life into a slice of paradise. Granted, I’m a work in progress, and if things seem to be moving more slowly than they should it’s because I can be rather stupidly resistant to the master builder (“Do you really have to tear out all the rusted pipes? Can’t we just slap some plumber’s tape on that sucker and call it a day?”). In the meanwhile, life can seem far from paradise. The reality is that it is a mostly mundane sequence of waking, sleeping, working, slacking, loving and being loved, hurting others and being hurt, prompting Frederick Buechner to observe, “If our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost.” Jesus came and walked among us in order to take the “rich human compost” of our lives, with all the stink and the flies that surround it and grow something beautiful. That, of course, is the truth that is so easy to miss in my perfectly arranged nativity scene. But that’s the Jesus that I’m unpacking this December.