by Kendra Perry
If you visit Bethlehem today, to see the place where Jesus was born, you will find the Church of the Nativity. Inside the church, you will find a shrine. The shrine looks, to me, mostly like a marble fireplace, and it is surrounded by priests and incense and richly embroidered cloths. As you come down the steps to the shrine, a priest will intone, “Born here, laid in a manger here,” so that you will know where the appropriate place is to direct your worship.
If you look carefully as your tour bus is leaving the Church of the Nativity, you may be able to see a cave in a nearby hillside. Caves like this served as animal pens, or stables, for residents of the area for many centuries. It was in a cave like this that Jesus was probably born. If you are lucky, your hand will be steady enough and your bus will be on a straightaway so that you can snap a picture as you drive by.
But that’s how the first Christmas was, too. Priests, a temple, kingly palaces in Jerusalem looking for the Messiah, and he shows up somewhere else entirely. Somewhere unexpected, subversive.
Where did Jesus spend Christmas?
Not in a church. Not with the priests. Not even in his earthly home, much less his heavenly one. His extended family was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Jesus spent Christmas in a cave with a hard-packed dirt floor. He was found among the poor, the outcast, the needy. He had sent joy ahead to people who needed joy: shepherds, pagan astrologers. And those who had just heard the good news of his arrival for the first time became the improvised family with whom he spent that first Christmas.
How did Jesus spend his Christmas? His only gift was himself: immortal, omnipotent divinity wrapped in a six pound, eight ounce package that peed, pooped, and cried. But it was the gift that would bring freedom.
We can engage in theological debates about the historicity of the account of Jesus’ birth, or whether or not it happened in December (probably not), or the origin of various Christmas customs (pagan, most likely). But in the end, these debates serve only as flimsy defenses against the demands placed on our lives by the central message of the season’s central story: God Almighty clothed himself in the flesh of humility and came to earth for me.
Confronted with love like that, what is our only reasonable response? Worship. And, forgive me, worship leaders of the world, but not the stained-glass-swelling-organ kind. No, not even the lifted-hands-shredding-guitar kind (though those certainly do have their place, and I’m sure we’ll get to enjoy plenty of them throughout all eternity).
No, our only reasonable response is worship that brings the self-sacrificing love of Christ to yet another human being.
How did we get from the hard-packed floor of a Bethlehem cave to the gift-wrap-strewn floor of an American living room? And what steps can we take to move back?
Here are some ideas, from the radical to the low-key.
RADICAL: Dispense with the family gift exchange altogether. In its place, dedicate the money to something from ADRA’s Really Useful Gift Catalog (https://giftcatalog.adra.org/) and the time to serving a meal to the less fortunate in your community on Christmas Day.
MEDIUM: Give items from ADRA’s Really Useful Gift Catalog (https://giftcatalog.adra.org/) alongside a small, thoughtful personal gift. For example, if someone in your family is a teacher, gift them a nice pen along with textbooks for a student in Madagascar (https://giftcatalog.adra.org/catalog/purchase-textbooks-for-primary-school-student-madagascar)
When friends or relatives ask you what you’d like as a gift, mention something from the catalog.
LOW-KEY: Go for the traditional gift exchange, but choose your gifts from empowering projects like Punjammies , where pajamas are made by and help provide income for women rescued from human trafficking.
I have to be honest; this challenges me as much as I hope it challenges you. It isn’t easy to look consumerism in the face, to say, “Let there be less,” and to really make it happen. It isn’t easy to ask your family to do something different than everyone else.
But this year, let’s look for Jesus on that less-traveled road. I think that’s where he’ll be.