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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Modern Holy Family - 12/24/2018

I love nativities and other images – like paintings, sculptures, drawings – of this ancient story we tell again this Christmas Eve in the 12th month, of the 18th year of the 21st Century of the Anno Domini or Common Era.

I like seeing other people’s Bethlehem and Nativity collections and hearing the stories behind how they were acquired. I’m drawn to scenes of the Nativity when I go to art museums. And, of course, like most of you, I love singing our songs of that Oh-So-Holy-Night when the Long-Promised Savior, Immanuel – God with us – was born into our world. Nothing would ever the same again.

In the last couple of years, I have noticed new ways of depicting this experience of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Two of them in contrast with each other really got my attention this year.

(printed copy in bulletins)

First, the Nativity scene – sometimes this is called the “Hipster Nativity” but I would argue that’s an unkind generalization. I think we must admit that our general cultural obsession with things like capturing perfectly staged selfie moments, or the hyper convenience most of us want when it comes to our version of hunting and gathering, and even duck lips are not confined to only the so-called “hipster” population.

Anyway, I have to admit, when I saw this, it made me giggle. The designer kind of nailed it … I mean we all know that ear-budded shepherd who cannot tear himself away from his screen. I’ve never had sheep, but I have put jackets and sweaters on my dogs. There’s even a drone on the roof of the stable and – thanks be to God – that beef is 100 percent organic!

As clever and self-reflective as this Nativity may be, however, it is not very much like the scene that takes place in our story – and not just because our story comes out of an ancient context and this nativity out of a modern, consumerist context.

It is possible to create a more true-to-Spirit depiction of the Holy Family in Bethlehem that is imagined in our world right now.

That is what I think the second image captures so well. If this story were to take place today, it would look much more like this couple … people of color, in a busy and bustling city of the region… people experiencing homelessness and so much vulnerability … people who would probably make many of us feel a little uncomfortable if we encountered them in the night when we ran to the convenience store to grab the eggnog we forgot to get at the grocery.

The artist of this image is very clever as well. This image also nails it, we notice as we start seeing the details. Mary wears a “Nazareth H.S.” sweatshirt. Notice the name patch on the shirt of the Messiah’s step-dad – Jose. And then we see the motel marquis over Mary’s shoulder as she protectively holds her unborn child. No vacancy there. But they do have free HBO and look, there’s a “New Man ger.”

The window of the convenience store is full of hints of what God is up to in these two servants of God. There’s are ads for Wiseman Cigarettes and the Good News Newspaper; poking out from behind Jose is an election sign – “Elect Herod Antipas.” And, coming up from a seemingly lifeless crack in the sidewalk is a new sprout with a bit of a divine glow to it … it eludes to the prophet Isaiah.

“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,

            and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

   the spirit of counsel and might,

            the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-2)

I think this is a really important piece of art, as unholy and messy and imperfect a story as it tells us. This is largely how the Holy Family in Bethlehem would have been perceived by most people… in the middle of the night …looking like foreigners in a strange city … looking for a safe shelter and a little compassion.

It’s quite the contrast between these two depictions. And for many us who live sufficiently in God’s grace, who have warm shelter and food; who leave here to join with family and friends to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child – it is meant to convict us a little … or a lot. It is meant to stir us up too … to embolden us to be God’s hands and heart for those who need some safe shelter and compassion.

Now does this mean I think we should all run home from here and toss out our white-washed, European versions of the Nativity scene? Absolutely not.

If you were to come to my home, you would see a little Italian Nativity that my father Leo gave me when I first left home. It is a treasure to me. The figurines of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and even the heavenly messenger flying above the whole scene and singing in Latin – “Gloria,” – all of them – are as white as me. They have lovely, clean clothing and pink and well-fed faces.

It is possible to love and care for a nativity such as this and also realize that it is a romanticized version of our ancient story. In that way it pushes us to remember who this child is born unto. It beckons us to follow God’s lead and seek ways to be a God-fearing and loving neighbor to the humble and the lowly … the ones our scriptures remind us of over and over, like in Matthew:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Mt 25:37-40)

These are people who occupy a tender spot in God’s heart and often are the people through whom God breaks into our world unexpectedly and with power.

We heard from some of these people in our Christmas Reader’s Theater.

“For unto us, a Child is born,” said the foreigners who trust that God goes with them and even leads them to a new land. A place where there is life and a chance to blossom, especially for their children and their grandchildren … like Abraham and Ruth and Isaiah.

“For unto us, a Child is born,”  say the ones who are enslaved – those who – for whatever reason – have lost their freedom to another person, a disease, the cycle of poverty, the unhealthy or unbalanced temptations and lures that draw us away from God. Those on the brink of giving up … like Hagar.

“For unto us, a Child is born,” proclaim those who have been faithful and broken all at the same time, those who have cheated and lied – us who have feared the truth somehow and rather than face up to it, chosen paths that hurt people we know, or people we do not know… and ourselves … like Jacob and David.

“For unto us, a Child is born,” say the ones who have tried so hard to ignore or resist how God calls them in this life … like Moses.

“For unto us, a Child is born,” say the easily overlooked ones – children and elders, orphans, the ones who resist the glories and riches of the world in favor of the simple and life-giving way of God … like Samuel.

“For unto us, a Child is born,” argues those who have little, who are forced out of their homes and live at the mercy of neighbor. Those who are servants of the Lord despite the sideways glances and whispers of passersby … like Joseph and Mary.

And finally “For unto us, a Child is born,” we remember this Christmas Eve. This is the poor child who pushes us to see God in the eyes of all who we encounter. This is our God who comes into our lives especially in our most vulnerable moments. This is our Messiah who brings us freedom from sin and death, freedom we soon taste in the Bread and the Wine.

So please read with me again, from page 9 in your bulletin, the last part of our Christmas Reader’s Theatre reading. 

People:  Today we add our voices to the chorus of thanksgiving.

We sing our part in the song that rises through time,

around the world, in every language,

“Glory to God in the highest”.

We give thanks for God’s son,

a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!

For unto us a child is born!


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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