Associate General Minister
I’ve only been arrested twice in my life, and both times were for disturbing the peace. The first time was for refusing to stop praying aloud in the bowels of the Pentagon. The second was for public lament in the chambers of the Senate. Disturbing the peace is a criminal offense, even if that disturbance is to cry out loud for justice. Public offerings of prayer, especially disruptive prayer, are forbidden on federal property, and such laws have been increasingly enforced in recent years.
One does not get to willfully disturb the peace of another in this country and, in times of great peril, this legal restraint is problematic for followers of Jesus. Not the Jesus we so gently await with candles and carols and majestically lit nativity scenes. But rather the Jesus whose very birth was so disturbing to King Herod that he was willing to massacre the innocent to silence Jesus’ cries.
The presence of Jesus among us is disturbing.
I read an article this week by biblical scholar, Ian Paul, suggesting this notion of Jesus being born an outcast is much more comforting than the notion of Jesus, an Afro-Semitic Palestinian Jewish baby conceived by an unmarried young girl of meager means, being born among us. Perhaps it’s easier on us all to go to the stable than for Jesus to come where we dwell.
The way we tell the nativity story matters. Theologically, it matters because the story we perpetuate evokes a sense of peace that is antithetical to scripture. Socially, it matters because Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth; Jesus came to disturb our false notions of peace. There can be no peace where there is not justice. While images of the holy family seeking refuge in a stable with animals may warm our hearts, it chills our souls by reducing us to spectators of the miracle rather than participants in preparing the way.
The Bible does not say Jesus was born in a stable. There is no mention of animals surrounding him to keep him warm. Neither is Mary noted as riding into Bethlehem on a donkey, although that image is less disturbing than that of a brown-skinned pregnant girl forced to walk 90 miles over treacherous terrain.
Luke’s Gospel does say Jesus was laid in a manger, but a manger in 1st century Palestine would not necessarily mean Jesus was born outside. Given the culture and the context of that time, “no room in the inn” most likely means they had to make space. It meant those already in the home had to make room for Jesus.
Making room for Jesus means making room for those who have no place to lay their heads, tending to the needs of vulnerable, and caring for the poor. This revelation may cause more than a few of our Christmas narrations to implode. Christ among us will disturb our peace. The Christ child then and the Christ child now expects us to make room.
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV)