Canadian Mennonite
Volume 13, No. 24
Dec. 21, 2009

Christmas unsanitized

Our two seasonal articles and poem all have one thing in common: they make it quite clear that North American culture—and Christianity—have often sanitized Christmas, to make it more acceptable to our society and parishioners. And all three authors, in their own way, attempt to demythologize the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ two millennia ago. Dan Epp-Tiessen takes the newborn baby out of the saccharine-sweet Christmas card scenes and Sunday school pageants, and places him instead in a dung- and fly-infested stable, where the poor and hurting of this world can identify him as their own. In a similar vein, John Longhurst, in his “Exonerating that ‘mean old innkeeper’?” article, suggests that a Middle Eastern take on the story makes the treatment of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, as we have come to know it, implausible. Finally, Leona Dueck Penner’s poem, “Mary’s Lament,” brushes off the “gentle Mary laid her child in a manger” persona and invests her with the grittiness of an AIDS activist. Be prepared, gentle reader, to have your blinkers removed.

Christmas is good news, isn’t it?

But don’t believe the greeting card depictions

By Dan Epp-Tiessen

Christmas is good news, isn’t it? Yet 1994 was the most painful Christmas season of my life. That year, as Dec. 25 drew nearer, my wife Esther and I found our pain and sorrow growing deeper and deeper. Almost every evening after we got our two young boys in bed we would collapse exhausted on the livingroom couch. We would light a candle to remember Tim, our dear eight-year-old son who had died of a brain tumour less than two months before, and then we would weep, abundant tears flowing down our cheeks. After an hour or so when we were even more exhausted we would climb into bed.

Christmas is good news, isn’t it? Yet a friend of mine who used to work at an inner-city Christian men’s hostel observed that, as Christmas approached, the mood in the hostel would become more and more foul, as the men would became more mean and nasty to each other and to the staff.

Christmas is good news, isn’t it? Yet I remember a man who was able to live and function on his own, but he experienced great difficulty in connecting with people and so he had few friends. He hated the Christmas season and he especially hated Christmas Day. He received no gifts and he had no one to spend the day with. Not even a coffee shop was open so that he could escape from his loneliness.

Christmas is good news, isn’t it? But have you ever talked to someone who has just gone through a marriage break-up, lost a job, went bankrupt or lost a dear loved one, and asked them how they feel about the Advent/Christmas season?

Misrepresenting Christmas

If Christmas is good news, why then do so many people experience it as such a difficult and painful time? There are probably numerous reasons for this, but one of them has to do with what we have done with the Christmas season.

Every Advent, I remember an article by Maynard Shelly that I read more than 30 years ago now. The article is provocatively entitled “Do Christmas cards tell the truth?” Shelly concludes that they don’t. Think of how the typical Christmas cards portray the story: Beautiful sentimental scenes of a confident and calm Joseph, a radiant Mary and a peacefully sleeping baby Jesus, all surrounded by cute and cuddly animals. Is this the truth about Christmas?

According to popular tradition based on the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born in a stable. A stable is a place where animals are kept. Stables come complete with certain animal byproducts and the annoying flies these byproducts attract and the pungent odours they give off. But where in the Hallmark cards do we see the manure, the flies, the cobwebs, the stench?

In the Hallmark version of Christmas, the stable has been pressure-washed, the animals have all showered recently, and Mary looks absolutely nothing like an exhausted young woman who has just gone through hard labour after a long journey and given birth to her first baby in a barn far from the familiarity of home and family.

It is easy to see why Christmas cards don’t tell the truth. Realistic portrayals of the birth of Jesus are not likely to sell very well. And so we sentimentalize and romanticize Christmas, and turn the story of Jesus’ birth into a perfect event that lacks the pain, agony and unpleasantness that characterize the story as told in the New Testament.

Maybe it is precisely this false perfection that prevents many people from experiencing Christmas as good news. Christmas in our society has become about perfection. Christmas cards give us a perfect stable, a perfect Mary and perfect animals. Television commercials promise us the perfect gift received in the context of a perfect family. No wonder Christmas is not experienced as good news by many people.

No wonder the men at the hostel feel their loneliness and alienation all the more intensely at Christmas. No wonder poor and marginalized people feel their poverty and marginalization all the more acutely at Christmas. No wonder grieving people feel overwhelmed by the waves of pain. When there is deep pain and brokenness in your life, there is not much good news in a perfect Christmas. People who are hurting are not likely to find themselves at home in a perfect Christmas.

The real good news

But the real good news of Christmas is that Jesus was born in a barn. The Lord of this universe came to us as love incarnate in the form of a baby born to poor peasants. This baby was born in a dark, stinky, fly-infested stable. If you want to contemporize the story, imagine Jesus born in a back alley behind the Safeway store, where Joseph has made a bed for Mary and Jesus in the dumpster.

And that is good news. God comes to us not in and through perfection. Jesus the Christ was born into a world where there is manure, obnoxious disease-spreading flies, and where far too often life stinks. And that is good news.

Christmas is not about Jesus being born into perfect stables or perfect families or a perfect world. Christmas is about Jesus being born into a world that is deeply broken and hurting, a world in need of healing and redemption. Our Christmas cards, malls and TV commercials want us to deny, or at least turn away from, the pain, suffering and brokenness of our world. But there is not much good news in that, because if we dare to be honest with ourselves we know that many forms of brokenness are all too real in our world.

The good news of Christmas is that God does not turn away from precisely such a world, but God decides to become immersed in it. God sends Jesus the Christ to enter into the world’s pain, and to bring light and hope and joy and peace and new life. The good news of Christmas can be summarized by the words of John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A light to shine for all time

Christ is the light that shone into the darkness of first-century Palestine dominated by an oppressive Roman Empire that ruled with an iron grip and taxed the life-blood out of the Jewish peasants. Christ came as light to heal the sick, cast out life-destroying demons, and to proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom had arrived. Therefore, people could receive the marvellous grace of God and repent. They could leave behind sinful and destructive beliefs and ways of living. They could embrace the joy of God’s reign, experience kingdom grace and forgiveness, and begin to live in the life-giving kingdom ways of peace, love, justice and righteousness now even in the midst of darkness.

Christmas is also about Jesus Christ entering the darkness of every other time and place (including ours), to bring light, healing, forgiveness, renewal and abundant life. Christmas is about Jesus coming into the darkness with God’s promise that some day all of creation will be bathed and illuminated and renewed by the healing light of God, and that we can receive and walk in that light today.

Indeed, Christmas is good news, isn’t it!

Dan Epp-Tiessen, an associate professor of Bible at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, preached this Advent meditation at a CMU chapel service, Nov. 27, 2007. It was subsequently published in the December 2008 issue of the Evangelical Mennonite Church Messenger and the Spring 2009 issue of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology. Reprinted with permission of Vision.

Another View of Jesus’ Birth

Exonerating that ‘mean old innkeeper’

By John Longhurst

People in the Middle East are legendary for their hospitality. During my travels in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, I was invited into many homes, served coffee, sweets and sumptuous meals. Even the poorest of the poor offered what they could. To fail to show hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable and a grave offence.

What’s true today was also true in the biblical world, where the arid desert climate and distance between towns and cities made hospitality even more important. Access to food, shelter and water could mean the difference between life and death. To not extend hospitality was considered an insult, or even an act of hostility.

What was customary for strangers went double for families. It would be unimaginable for people not to extend hospitality to relatives, especially those who had travelled considerable distances. Which is why the traditional interpretation of the nativity story—played out in countless churches this and every other Christmas season—rings so false. It’s a moving story. But, says Ken E. Bailey, a Presbyterian theologian and Middle Eastern scholar, there’s simply no way it could be true.

In his article, “The manger and the inn: A Middle Eastern view of the birth story of Jesus,” in the Dec. 21, 2006, issue of the Presbyterian Record, Bailey notes that what our Bibles translate as “inn” is, in the Greek, the word kataluma, which means literally “guest room” and not “hotel.” In other words, Joseph and Mary did not go hunting for a room at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn; they went to the home of a relative, where they naturally expected to be invited to stay. But when they got there, they found that the house was full with other relatives who, like them, had returned to Bethlehem for the census.

It’s sort of like what might be happening at your house this Christmas. Your house is full when cousin Joe and his pregnant wife Mary show up unannounced late on Christmas Eve. You wouldn’t tell them to go to a hotel, and you certainly wouldn’t put them in a barn.

And neither did Joseph and Mary’s relatives, says Bailey. He notes that it was common for animals to be kept inside a traditional Palestinian home at night for safety. The homes, he says, had two levels: the larger upper level was where the family ate, lived and slept; the smaller lower level was for the animals. The two levels were connected by a short set of stairs, and a manger—a feed trough—was built into the edge of the upper level so the animals could stand up and feed at night if they were hungry.

And it was on the edge of that upper level, says Bailey, where Joseph and Mary slept and Jesus was born. Not in a smelly stable, but in the comfort of a home surrounded by loving relatives.

What does this version of the nativity scene do to our understanding of the biblical story?

First, says Bailey, it takes terrible weight off that “mean old innkeeper” and all the cruel inhabitants of first-century Bethlehem. “Is the entire village of Bethlehem so hard-hearted that no home is open to a pregnant woman about to give birth?” he asks, adding, “Our western tradition has, across the years, invented details that do not fit our Middle Eastern world as a real story about real people in a real village.”

Second, he says, it makes the incarnation “more authentic.” Over time, he observes, the birth of Jesus has become so mythologized that it hardly seems real. “The traditional inn-and-stable scene succeeds only in distancing Jesus. It makes it all so far away and long ago, the make-believe world of Christmas cards and medieval carols. If he had been born in Caesar Augustus’ palace he could hardly be more remote from real life.”

The birth of Jesus, he concludes, is moving, life-giving and transforming because it took place “not in exceptional circumstances, but in a very ordinary setting. We may picture him surrounded by the laughter and bustle and family goodwill of a comfortable, if not palatial, home.

“Of course, there are the smells and noises of the animals—but that is part of normal village life, and no one would wish it otherwise. . . . Jesus is born in a real, live, warm, loving, crowded home, just as any other Jewish boy might expect to have been. In other words, he is one of us.”

John Longhurst is the director of marketing and sales for Mennonite Publishing Network, and a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Steinbach (Man.) Carillon, which both ran this piece a few years ago. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Mary’s Lament

By Leona Dueck Penner


Last night,
you came to me again,
head bowed, face veiled, birth-
fresh body robed in brown

stepping softly out of the shadows
into my midnight slumber,
you smelled faintly of blood
and of straw

And I, in my sleepy stupor,
expected to see the Christ-
child as you lifted a babe
from the folds of your robe


(your eyes glittering with grief
and sharp pain) you held out
one life-
less infant,
then another,

HIV/AIDS is to blame
for this
and for this!

Two thousand years later,
you cried,
the slaughter of children continues
and mothers in Ramah still weep!

Wide awake now,
(and pierced to the heart),
I quavered,
but what can I do?

You paused
(while tenderly enswathing
the dead babies)
then said as you
melded into the shadows:

Write this poem for a start

and see where it leads. . . .

For discussion

1. Dan Epp-Tiessen writes that “Christmas in our society has become about perfection.” Do you agree? How much do we strive for perfection when it comes to decorations, activities and food? Does an image of a “perfect” Christmas make it impossible to achieve? How can we reduce the pressure for perfection in our families?

2. Have you experienced pain or disappointment in the Christmas season? How does your family compare to the image of the loving family getting together at Christmas? Are there times when you have almost hated Christmas?

3. What are some examples of how we sentimentalize or romanticize this season? If you imagine “Jesus born in a back alley behind the Safeway store, where Joseph made a bed for Mary and Jesus in a dumpster,” how does that change the story? How is the figure of Mary in Leona Dueck Penner’s poem different from the Mary depicted on a Hallmark card?

4. John Longhurst says Jesus was not born in the stable of an inn, but in a crowded house. How does this change our interpretation of Jesus’ birth? What would your family do to accommodate cousin Joe and his pregnant wife if they showed up unannounced at your house?

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