Nativities, St. Francis and the UnKingdom of God

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the nativity crib in Saint Peter's Square after celebrating the Vespers and Te Deum praye
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the nativity crib in Saint Peter's Square after celebrating the Vespers and Te Deum prayers in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on December 31, 2011.AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

One holiday season, as I was wondering through the mall with my mother-in-law, we came across a Christmas store. Among all the decorations and lights, there was a beautiful nativity scene in the front display. As we stood there admiring it, two woman walked by and looked over at the nativity. As they passed, we heard one of the women say to the other, "Those Christians will make every holiday about them!" After a moment of stunned silence, we both burst out laughing.

There are some Christian who would use this as further "proof" that there is a war on Christmas. I am not threatened by the pluralism and multiculturalism in our world. My religious beliefs are not diminished by the differences, but made more distinct. There is no war on Christmas (apart, perhaps, from the rampant commercialization of the season). However, this encounter made me realize that as Christians, our over-familiarity with the nativity story can make us just as blind to the inherent meaning it contains. The result is often nativity scenes that bear little resemblance to the powerful events they attempt to represent.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas one year, St. Francis of Assisi was reflecting on his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, specifically his time in Bethlehem. Knowing that most of the common people would never get the chance to make such a journey, he longed to find a way for them to experience something of what he had. Contacting a local wealthy benefactor, Francis asked him to help make this dream a reality. Finding a secluded cave, they began making preparations, setting out torches and candles, bringing in straw and animals. The scene was made complete by the addition of a carved wooden baby Jesus to lie on the stone manger. As evening fell, instead of going to church, the people began to make their way in the darkness to the cave. As they went, their hearts were excited by the newness of this event. Filled with eager expectation, they began to sing together as they walked.

When they arrived, the crowd became silent as they entered into the live nativity -- a scene only ever depicted in art, beautiful, but separate. Here they encountered the birth of Jesus like never before. As Francis preached, he was overwhelmed by the simple beauty and began to sing the gospel of the incarnation. The people were rapt, moved and transformed like never before. Yet, it was not because the nativity was so transcendent, but because such a holy event was presented to them in the simplicity and mundanity of their lives. It was divine, without question, but it was also profoundly human.

Today we have sanitized the nativity, often to the point of absurdity. The figures stand in rich, flowing robes. The animals watch peacefully and quietly. Whether or not there were actually animals in the room when Jesus was born, we can count on the fact that their presence (former or current) would be quite obvious by the smells in the room. Mary certainly doesn't look like just gave birth, let alone in a "stable." Let's be honest: giving birth is messy and noisy. Forgive me, but I simply don't buy "no crying he made" about baby Jesus. Yet, in the midst of the mundane and the mess, the event remains sacred and beautiful. In fact, I believe these dynamics make them even more so.

The nature of Jesus' coming tells us much about the nature of who He is and the nature of the kingdom He came to establish. When a king or caesar was born or crowned, the event would be marked by heralds going out to all the powerful people in the lands to proclaim the good news. No heralding has ever matched that of Jesus' birth, with a multitude of angels proclaiming His coming, yet it was heralded not to kings and rules, but to simple shepherds in the fields. Augustus Caesar declared his adopted father, Julius Caesar, to be a god, thus claiming for himself the title of "son of god," living accordingly in lavish style. Jesus, whose very birth was a point of scandal, also claimed to be "Son of God," yet lived a simple life of service among fisherman and tax collectors. Caesar ruled the largest empire in the world by sheer might, promising peace, prosperity and justice for all. Jesus too offered peace, provision and justice, yet died a criminals death at the hands of that very Empire. In fact, the claims of Jesus were a direct political affront to Rome, contributing to His execution. By all the standards of the world, Jesus was a failure.

Yet today, Rome is better known for its role, past and present, in Christendom than for Augustus' reign. Using means to counter-intuitive to our expectations (and the expectations of many of His own followers), Jesus remains. What might have been dismissed, at best, as a noble failure, has become a defining characteristic of the kingdom of God. Sadly, Christian history is filled with example where we (His followers) have put our hands on His plans, attempting to achieve the ends through means contrary to His example and explicit teaching -- through power, force, fear and manipulation. Yet, through it all, the message as persevered: Jesus is not like other kings, His kingdom unlike any kingdom.

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. once wrote of Jesus:

"Above all Christ our Lord: his career was cut short and whereas he would have wished to succeed by success, nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure. His plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this, he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense, it is consoling."

In other words, even Jesus knew that this path would be costly. Facing the cross, even He asked that "this cup" be taken from Him. Yet in the end, He prayed, "Not my will, but Yours be done". As Christians, the nativity should stand as a reminder that we are not achieve God's intentions through means all too common in the world. Like the simple, humble and vulnerable Christ in the manger, our lives and faith should be seen by the world in a similar light. Instead of the self-righteous, power hungry and hypocritical people we are all too commonly seen as (and not without good reasons, sadly), my prayer is that we become known as people of genuine humility, selfless service and graciously loving, even in the face of suffering and death. That's the Christianity I want to live. That's the Christianity St. Francis tried to embody. And that is Christ.

Rejoice! Christ is born!

(The term "unKingdom of God" is drawn from the forth coming book by the same name by Mark Van Steenwyk)