(with thanks to Alice Zorn, http://alicezorn.blogspot.ca )
From the south shore of Montreal, if you were to drive over the Victoria Bridge and then, just past Costco, turn left on Wellington, you’d pass the train yards toward my house. If you did that, you’d go right through Pointe-St-Charles.
We all know the Pointe. The Pointe will always be the Pointe. But it’s changed. Property values have gone up. Gentrification has set in. Lots of it is still a tough neighbourhood, but it’s mixed now – there are plenty of upscale places sharing space with some of those old, hard-times homes. And they really know how to do up Christmas in the Pointe. In particular, if you were paying close attention as you drove down Wellington, you’d see a very special Nativity scene set up outside a clinic.
Nothing special about a Nativity scene. Right? There are hundreds of them in that neighbourhood. But if you were to slow down and look more closely at this particular one, you’d be surprised. My friend Alice Zorn, a writer who lives in the Pointe, alerted me to this. The centre, when you read the sign, is actually a Birthing Clinic. A place where young women go to have their babies. Nowhere more perfect for a Christmas nativity scene.
Except that, despite how it looks, the Crèche out front of this Centre turns out to be NOT very traditional. There’s a roof, and what looks like a stable. But when you get up close and look at the little figures, the manger is actually a bed. And while there’s a Mary, sort of – a young woman, anyway – she’s not wearing a blue robe and staring peacefully at a baby Jesus. She’s on her back. Shouting. And there’s no Joseph, standing in a bathrobe doing not much of anything. There’s a midwife, in action, helping the baby to be born. And there are no angels. Instead, there are a whole bunch of other pregnant women figures, standing around watching and helping as the young woman gives birth.
The first time I saw this, I felt tricked. From a distance, it LOOKS like a manger scene. But where’s Jesus? Where are the cattle and sheep and oxen (even though the Bible doesn’t actually mention any animals except sheep)? Where’s the little drummer boy? (And Rudolph?!!!) And where are the shepherds and the angels?
This isn’t a REAL nativity scene! Or is it?
Well, that depends, maybe, on what the nativity really means.
In the eyes of many people, tonight and tomorrow are the highest pressure times of the year: Christmas. And in our usual way of seeing the world, Christmas is supposed to be about love and happiness and warm feelings and family and forgiveness. If we’re religious, as we are, then it’s about the birth of Jesus, which is remembered as a sort of lovely historical event that means something nice, but not always very defined, for us now.
If we’re being honest, we have to admit that part of the charm of the traditional Christian Christmas is that it’s set so firmly in an imagined, highly-stylized past. During the reign of Caesar Augustus a decree went out that all the world should be enrolled. And Joseph went with Mary, his betrothed, who was heavy with child, to the town of Bethlehem… and she gave birth in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.
It’s lovely. The problem is, the past we celebrate is also wrong. I grew up thinking about Jesus being born in a stable, with straw and hay and cold puffs of air coming out of animal’s nostrils and the smells of a barn. I LOVED that image, the traditional image of the crèche, and the manger.
But in fact, as I learned when I was in the Holy Land in 2009, the place most people kept their animals in Biblical times, in Palestine, was in caves. So if there was no room in the Inn, Jesus would have been born in a cave. Not some quaint medieval European barn.
Our manger scenes are beautiful. But absolutely inaccurate. Which goes to show that maybe history isn’t the most important thing going on here, and that the Birthing Clinic in the Pointe may not have everything wrong after all.
So what ARE the basics, then?
There’s a birth. The most human of beginnings. The birth takes place in a marginal place, an uncomfortable, makeshift place, because of society’s indifference. There’s a young woman. A scared man. An oppressive political system. A baby. Witnesses who are used to living outside in the cold and dark. And God is present, being born into the darkest time of the year and the darkest places of our world.
On second thought, it sounds to me like the people in the Pointe may have the essence of the Christmas story exactly RIGHT.
Do not be afraid, said the angel to the shepherds. To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Why? Why these people? Maybe Luke’s Nativity is a way of saying two things: firstly, it’s the poor and outcast and outsiders whom God is paying attention to. And secondly, it is what is poor and outcast and an outsider in US, and in our lives, where our Lord is being born in us. When we are stripped of all the fancy clothes, the bells and whistles and the pretensions we load on ourselves, maybe that’s when Christmas really comes.
Luther said, again and again, that the fact that Jesus was born in a rough and rude stable means that the Gospel can go, and BE, anywhere. In the most desperate of situations, hope can be born. This also means something very important for us: if and when we fail, and we find ourselves marginalized, or feeling like we don’t belong, or knowing we’ve messed up, or simply cast aside by a success that passes us by, then our place with God is not worse. It’s just as strong, or stronger. Do not be afraid, said the angels. This good news is for you. And this will be a sign, for YOU.
Above the unusual Nativity scene I was talking about is a sign in French that reads: Pointe St-Charles birthing centre. On ne peut plus attendre. Ca pousse! Which might be translated as: we can’t wait any longer! It’s coming!
That, also, is the essence of the story from Luke. Ca pousse! It’s coming! Once Jesus is born, there’s no turning back. Once Messiah has come, and come in a way that surprises and shocks and upsets the normal order, then nothing normal should ever be normal again.
For it is only when we are outsiders ourselves, and realize that we are so, that we can stand with the Shepherds, watching in wonder as rank on rank of angels fill our skies, singing their hope and love and promise into our lives.
“For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.” What a promise. What a wonderful blessing. And in faith, and from faith, our answer is clear: Glory to God in the highest, we can respond. And on earth: peace and goodwill!