New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 24, 2018
|Nativity scene, Paradise, CA|
Last night on Netflix I finally got around to watching “Nanette”, a stand-up comedy act written and performed by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby. It affected me profoundly. Within in a little over an hour she talked about art history, gender, sexuality, misogyny, sexual assault and abuse, her painful childhood and young adulthood, her coming-out story as a lesbian. She explained that she has primarily done self-deprecatory humor, which means her personhood, her identity is the punchline, and so she can no longer do comedy, because of what it does to her story and to her soul. She said, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore: not to myself or to anyone else who identifies with me.”
In a similar vein, because it is a story about those who exist in the margins, we can no longer domesticate the Christmas story into a cozy tale in which the wise magi from the east and the shepherds in the field are characters in one story when they are two completely different tales about how Jesus came into the world; a story in which we have westernized, colonized a Palestinian home into which Joseph and Mary were welcomed and squeezed into the main downstairs room with the animals rather than squeezed out of an inn; a story that has become so blissfully domesticated that the outcast, the grieving, the lonely, the wounded, the dehumanized are alienated from Christmas, that this story squeezes them out of the picture simply because of who they are.
Churches have added Blue Advent and Blue Christmas services which can bring some solace to those who are hurting this time of year. But why must those who already feel on the margins of this story be separated from the whole? Don’t we all have sorrow in our stories, especially this time of the year? Couldn’t we all be chosen family together in one room, like Joseph and Mary and Jesus and the animals and their extended family in Bethlehem? Couldn’t we take care of each other like Joseph shepherding his betrothed and a child not his own through exile and home again? What if we companioned each other through the dark, be light for each other, as we search for where the light will lead us? Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Can we please ask ourselves just how did that happen, how hurting people became alienated from Christmas, as the stories were written for specifically for the lowly? How did we allow that to happen? How did something that was intended to set people free become locked up? To keep us safe? Because when we tell these stories with a certain glow and gloss, we can forget where these birth stories eventually lead.
Both birth stories are about how the world enshrines and protects the powerful and the cruel, but God is all about the vulnerable and what appears to be weak but more like resilient. Those who wrote these stories wanted us to remember that in the midst of despair, cruelty, evil and oppression, this child was Love enfleshed, born to his own, vulnerable, a target right from the start; that his life began the way it ended.
Hannah Gadsby reminded me that a joke has two parts, while a story has three. A joke begins with tension and ends with release: what she calls a beginning and a middle. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And all our stories—your story, my story, our shared stories, the Christmas stories—deserve to be told properly and honestly. The whole story, even if it discomforts we who are listening. Especially if it does. When we hear the whole story, we become keepers of each other’s stories, each other’s sorrows and joys, and we become each other’s keepers. For how can we then walk away as though untouched? Our stories become enfleshed in one another, and we become one flesh, what we churchy types call the Body of Christ.
One day, though, when we have been telling our stories properly, honestly, again and again, enfleshed in one human being after another, we’ll all become one flesh, and we’ll truly be able to call ourselves humanity, humankind, each other’s keeper, no one a stranger, because we will have learned to protect the vulnerable and shame no one, and the word ‘hate’ never heard or taught again and cruelty vanished from the earth. But first we have to tell the whole story. When we’re ready to tell it. And the rest of us need to make a full-hearted space for it. That’s what Christmas is all about.
Merry Christmas, Church.