When Walt Disney promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their favourite book ‘Mary Poppins’ he had no idea it would take 20 years to fulfil this promise. What he hadn’t bargained for was the book’s author PL Travers, who did not want to see her beloved creation ruined by Hollywood. The relationship between Walt Disney and PL Travers, and how Mary Poppins was brought to the big screen is told in the film ‘Saving Mr Banks’, which is currently showing in cinemas. At the end of Saving Mr Banks, it gives the impression PL Travers came to accept and even like the film of Mary Poppins, but in reality she hated what the movie had done to her beloved character. She accused Walt Disney of betraying her originally dark protagonist by turning her into the bundle of joy that was Julie Andrews. The film is certainly different to the book. In the book Mary Poppins is a no-nonsense, dark and disciplined character, who uses more self-discipline than magic, but this was lost in the film version.
You could argue that something similar has happened to the Christmas story. Much of the story has been sanitised, with the darker, far more troubling elements in the nativity often ignored or overlooked. For example most nativity scenes, whether performed in schools or churches, finish with the wise men visiting the infant Jesus. But rarely do we go onto tell what happens next. The Apostle Matthew records that “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Mt 2:16). Because of this, Mary, Joseph are forced to flee to Egypt with Jesus, where according to the Gospel of Matthew they stay until Herod’s death, before returning to Nazareth, because it was not safe for them to return to Bethlehem.
You may say that this would not be appropriate to show or talk about at Christmas, especially if children are present. But Herod plays an important part of the story and if we leave him in the Christmas narrative, we can address the shadow of evil hovering of Christmas to this day, in places like Syria, where the innocent are suffering and dying on a daily basis, and where the international community seems unable to bring an end to the bloodshed. Herod still stalks the earth.
It was into this dark, troubled, and violent world that Jesus, the one who laid the foundations of the earth (Hebrews 1:10), the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3), became Emmanuel, God with us.
Because of the incarnation, in our darkest hours, in our saddest moments, when fear and violence and loneliness seem to rule the planet, we can take comfort that we are not alone. That God entered human flesh, and lived as one of us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was killed by the Nazi’s shortly before the end of the Second World War, wrote, “We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us.”
Jesus came as the Light of the World, and as we heard in our reading from John’s Gospel, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome.’ (John 1:5). Because of Jesus, we have hope. We have hope for the future, that we will be redeemed; hope for the present, that we are not alone. He gives us hope even for the past, hope that our failures are not greater than God’s love. And even as the smallest light can dispel darkness, so the light of Christ comes to dispel the darkness in our lives, and the darkness in our world.
None of us had any choice over how or when we were born. But God did, and he chose a simple stable. In doing so, he announced in a dramatic way that he had come to be available to us all, and that he came to stand on the side of the poor, the weak, the disposed, the homeless, and those on the margins of society.
If we idealise and over sentimentalise the nativity the danger is that it removes the birth of Jesus from the realities, and struggles of ordinary life.
Rather than the romanticised manager that we tend to think about at Christmas, the stable or cave where Jesus was born would have been smelly, dirty, cold and untidy, and the manager he was placed in simple and crude, a very strange bed for a King to lie in. Probably someone may have gone as far as to place clean straw under the baby, but elsewhere the straw on the floor would have been anything but fresh. On the wooden posts, there would be signs of where generations of animals had rubbed their itching, flea-bitten backs. In Christina Rossetti’s carol In The Bleak Midwinter, she writes Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign: In the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
We sometimes think that in order for Christ to enter our lives, we need first to get our lives all sorted out, and cleaned out. But what the message of Christmas shows, is that just as Jesus was once born in a cold, dark, dirty, unrenovated barn, in a place normally reserved for animals, so he wishes to be born today in cold, dark, dirty, unrenovated hearts. He does not postpone His birth in us until we have swept out the moral refuse. He comes to us as we are – into our broken, and less than perfect lives, with all our impatience, selfishness, evil thoughts, pride, deceit, and pretence. We do not need to first sanitise our lives for Jesus to come in. We don’t need to go in search of God, he came in search of us to rescue us by entering fully into the world. This is the message of Christmas. Emmanuel: God with us.
And the question we need to ask ourselves is, are we going to allow Christ into our lives and to renew and refresh them, no matter how messy, or messed up they may be. Jesus today says “Here I am! I stand at the door [of your lives] and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Rev 3:20). Are we willing to allow Christ into our less than perfect lives afresh this Christmas, & let his light and love radiate out for all to see, just as God’s love radiated out of that lowly manger where Jesus lay?