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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Ugliness of the Nativity

Another game rained out today, so here is what I would have delivered as a sermon today.  I hope you all stayed home safe!

So Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has long been considered his greatest work.  It has been called by some the greatest piece of music written.  Ever.

So certainly such an unquestionably brilliant piece of music must have met with universal praise when it was first performed, right?  Certainly, the praise from Beethoven's contemporaries must have been ubiquitously positive, right?

Wrong.

According to Beethoven biographer Cook, "early critics rejected [the Ninth] as cryptic and eccentric, the product of a deaf and aging composer".

Verdi wrote that the symphony was "marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last...it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement".

Leonhardt wrote "That 'Ode to Joy', talk about vulgarity!  And the text!  Completely puerile!"

Certainly, Shakespeare could not be criticized though, right?  Surely the greatest playwright and wordsmith of all time was and continues to be immune to negative commentary, right?

Wrong again.

Voltaire called Shakespeare "a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada".

Tolstoy said, "having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best...not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium".

Samuel Pepys called Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life".

So what is my point?  Well, I will tell you.

When most people ponder the Nativity Story, I think we have a tendency to see it through rose-coloured glasses.  Because it has become a 'modern classic', we tend to have a sanctified, sanitized, romanticized version of the Nativity, complete with the warm glow of the guiding star.  We need only turn to the lyrics of Silent Night for an example of how most of perceive the Nativity: "all is calm, all is bright".  The Holy Family and the Nativity scenario are always painted in peaceful, loving tones.

But the Nativity, if we reflect in all soberness upon it, was probably pretty ugly from start to finish.  Let's go through it.

Mary and Joseph were a young, working-class couple.  By today's standard, they were blue collar.  Mary was a teenager, and she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Forget the Imaculate-ness of the Conception.  Public opinion would have been against her.  You know those pierced, tattooed kids pushing strollers we "tsk, tsk" at in the mall food court?  Yeah, that would have been Mary and Joseph.

In the middle of winter, near Mary's time to give birth, they have to haul up stakes and make it to Bethlehem for this census.

Arriving in Bethlehem, they try to find a hotel.  Given their budget, they would not have been looking for a good one.  They can't even find a bad one.  They find an inn with a barn, and they are offered lodging there for the night.

Imagine trying to rest and giving birth in the maintenance shed of a Motel 6 in the middle of winter, and you are probably getting somewhere close to the mark.

Then Mary gives birth in the barn.  No doctors, no nurses, no heat or light.  No drugs.  No epidural, for God's sake.  How peaceful could that be?

Three foreign guys show up with weird gifts that they want to give your newborn baby.  All this against the backdrop of trying to avoid Herod's nefarious scheme.

So what about that scenario is possibly beautiful?  What about that scenario is possibly sacred?  It is probably just about the most shockingly awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing situation I can possibly imagine.

And yet the fact remains that the Nativity Story represents the greatest intrusion of life, love and beauty this world has ever seen.  Granted, we know this after the fact, but did Joseph and Mary know this?  Likely not.

I don't like to romanticize Jesus simply because that romanticization dehumanizes him for me.  Yes, the Son of God, I know, but he was still gloriously human, and the Nativity Story to me is a great example to me that beauty can indeed come from some of the ugliest scenarios you can possibly imagine.

Many of our readings this Advent have revolved around John the Baptist.  Another perfect example.  He was a smelly hippy who lived in a desert cave, preached fire and brimstone, wore camel hair and ate bugs.  No part of him or his life screamed, "Yeah, I am someone you should pay attention to".  And yet his powerful message drew people.

Same with Jesus.  Nothing about Jesus actually identified his as anyone we should pay attention to.  Not his lineage, not his birth, not his life, not even necessarily his death (by that I mean that thousands of people were crucified, and as far as I know, they don't have religions).  His resurrection would certainly make us sit up and take notice, but I digress...

If I can take nothing else from the Nativity Story, I can take away the fact that true beauty in life often does not come from peaceful, sanctified, romantic scenarios.

It often comes from the heartbreakingly beautiful ugliness of everyday life, from the imperfect, from the failures, from the struggles.

We lionize men and women with degrees, money, position, pedigree.  But Jesus, like so many of the truly great men and women throughout history, had no degree, no money, no position or pedigree.  He spoke to us as one of us.

Power speaks down to us from on high.  Wisdom often speaks up to us from below.

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