I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. My father was a chartered accountant and my mother the daughter of a successful businessman. We lived in an upper middle class suburb in a Victorian modelled house built in the early 1900s. Very popular and common throughout the British colonies in Africa and Australia/New Zealand. My education followed in my father’s footsteps – privileged private school.
About five miles from our house migrant Black men lived in townships. Dormitories designed to house them as they worked in the menial jobs required to keep the city prospering; factories and mines, collecting our garbage, delivering milk, sweeping streets. The Group Areas Act under Apartheid decreed that Black families be restricted to homelands or reservations – vast distances away from the workplace. Consequently men lived on the outskirts of the major cities in squalid conditions with the prospect of visiting their families perhaps for a few weeks every year. Understandably, some families rebelled. Their wives and children opted to risk journeying to the city and living in crudely built shelters cobbled together from wood and corrugated iron scrounged from wherever. They lived hand to mouth, day to day among the sand dunes. Vulnerability and uncertainty never left as the police frequently conducted raids, destroyed the shelters, and sent the offenders (women and children) back to their homeland; they were illegal squatters.
I visited some of these dwellings and was amazed at the creativity, tidiness, and pride in this place called home. I also witnessed the brutality of a police raid, burning houses, possessions scattered along the highway, women wailing and children crying. Human brutality, white supremacy, oppression and exploitation defying logic. Those in charge invoked the name of God, believed in Jesus, exchanged Christmas cards, and sang Christmas carols in church. Those living in the squalor of the camps believed in Jesus as well.
The irony, then, now, and probably in every generation around the world? If Jesus was born in Cape Town, it would undoubtedly have been on the outskirts of the city in the squatter camps and sand dunes five miles from my house. I would never have known – such was the degree of privilege, separation, and disconnect.
The picture I have described is not exaggerated, nor far from the reality in the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The context of discrimination, exploitation, corruption, grinding poverty, being trapped on a treadmill of survival. The absence of privilege, no financial buffers, little opportunity for advancement. The arranged marriage between Mary and Joseph was not casual, nor without consequence. Both families had to ensure that they could get along as they were to enter into agreements upon which their very survival would rest. There were no social networks to meet their needs when sick, out of a job, or a breadwinner died unexpectedly. It was therefore important that the families could depend on one another as their relationship was the bedrock of their society. For Mary (probably about 14 or 15 years of age) to have a vision and then subsequently be pregnant was scandalous beyond our comprehension. It violated every norm and agreement between families. The fact that she and Joseph stayed together was a miracle in itself.
I find it humbling and timely to remind myself of the realities of the first Christmas. In my lifetime the season has been radically sanitized, romanticized, commercialized, and ritualized. The stable has been upgraded, the floor washed and scrubbed, sweet smelling hay, freshly brushed farm animals, clean clothes, and soft musac. Mary and Joseph are sponsored by Hallmark cards and the whole scene has moved next door to where I grew up, free from awkward political conflict. Church services reinforce the image of comfort and sentimental memory. They usually are quite comfortable and ‘inclusive’ – sharing the stable with Santa Claus perched on the roof with reindeers, sleigh, and gifts.
Santa Claus asked me as a young boy, “Have you been good this year?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Wonderful, what can I bring you this Christmas?”
Jesus says, “Come to me all who are broken and have made mistakes, are less than perfect, and I will give you rest.”
I come. “Forgive me Lord, I don’t deserve….”
Jesus lifts his hand with a smile. “Enough, I know. It is my goodness that you can lean into. Receive. Being truthful will set you free.”
If I had the option of where I’d be born in Cape Town it would have been in my suburb, certainly not the squalor of the squatter camp. Think of the worst place you can imagine wherever you grew up. That is probably where Jesus would have been born.
Isn’t that sobering to consider? God’s only Son could have become human anywhere, at any time in history. Yet he voluntarily enters our world at the bottom of the barrel rather than with affluent privilege? He never grew up exploiting his identity either. He never called in favors nor capitalized on his connections with God, his real Father. He wasn’t upwardly mobile, plugging in to privilege and power to change stones into bread, providing for his family without working, saving himself from crucifixion with a legion of angels. His life was so different to what we admire and elevate as success today.
Elon Musk as Time’s Person of the Year encapsulates our values in contrast. No man is an island and solely able to produce the wealth attributed to him. With so many resources, opportunities, and privileges his accumulated wealth funds rockets into space, an outrageous lifestyle, electric vehicles for the rich, media adulation, endless ego massages, and the minimal payment of taxes. Jesus could have accomplished all of that with ease. The fact that he chose another path is the good news of Christmas and the blessing that we celebrate – if we take time to scrape away the layers of cynicism and disillusionment.
When we focus on Jesus in a filthy stable behind a non-descript Inn in Bethlehem rather than our tendency to airbrush…. We find that God’s revelation of love in human form is truly unexpected, unbelievable, defies and transcends our distortions, and pulls us back to the very essence of our created being.
God loves people wherever they are. Identity, worth, and value are not earned nor inherited. They are gifted to every human being on an equal footing by virtue of their birth into humanity, rather than privilege or poverty. Christmas is about God’s gift of love and hope that reaches into every corner of our grubby lives, or our privileged boardrooms. Neither place depresses him or impresses. Shepherds and kings, peasants and tax collectors – all are equal around the manger of Jesus and the foot of his Cross.
My hope, my joy, my trust, and my faith rest entirely on what God has given and revealed in this remarkable person, Jesus of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, and Golgotha. His life, death, and resurrection. Despite all that I have done to distort who he truly is. Despite the cumulative denial, rewriting, or religious fiddling by generations down the ages. It has always been a clash of where I grew up and where he was born. Experiencing that stable on the first night of Christmas through his eyes up close or through mine from a distance. We want to erase the inconvenient truths for which he was crucified precisely because they continue to challenge and cause us offense.
More than once a year I kneel before Jesus and ask him to lay hands on my eyes so that I might view and understand things, people, circumstances, and even myself as he sees. I need him to take the scales off my eyes. Scales of ignorance, distortion, unbelief, disillusionment, wrong thinking, despair at the world around me, disappointment with church, and the long list that tugs at my sleeve to give up on faith. He does just that – when I remind myself of the first Christmas.
I reflect on the young, awkward, and innocent Mary and Joseph totally out of their comfort zone believing God. On the risk and vulnerability of the baby Jesus born almost within shouting distance of a king who wanted him dead, not alive. On the hopeless circumstances in which they would grow as a family with so little in terms of earthly rewards and riches. Of how God touched the world in the most obscure of places with no fanfare or celebrity.
He did that so that every single one of us would know through the ages of the value he places upon our lives. Access to his Son is granted to all. He owes us nothing, not even an explanation. And yet his Son came to explain, model, teach, redeem and rescue us. We were hardly aware that we even needed rescuing! His Son served, healed, dined wherever invited, encouraged the poorest and the least, and eventually laid down his life far too young at the hands of those for whom he came. His birth was totally unexpected, his life was unbelievably generous and kind, his death was mind-numbingly tragic and cruel, his resurrection – miraculous.
And the awkward, flawed, and fumbling disciples that were to build, sabotage, and continue his church through the ages as a witness to his power and love? That is surely a testimony to his patience, his grace, his mercy, and his passion. None of which has has ever been withdrawn from the dawn of the ages. Never withdrawn from that first cold winter night in Bethlehem, and from wherever we might find ourselves this Christmas in 2021. That’s the good news!!!
May you be cradled and held in the humble, sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus; with a heart ‘strangely warmed’ and a mind renewed with revelation far beyond your understanding. May your Christmas be blessed indeed!