A Reflection for Christmas Eve
Well, the great night is finally here. Yet, in spite of its schmaltzy sentimentalization and commercialism, there is something that bothers me about the whole scene. And that’s it being staged in an unhome – a space shared with domestic animals with all the expected accoutrement of such a setting. No one important is there to welcome the Messiah. Why is that? Is it important?
It must have some significance, and I suspect it’s one I’m not going to like or welcome into my celebrations of this event. My seminary profs would tell me its “hermeneutical.” But what in the world does this sixty-four dollar word “hermeneutics” have to do with Christmas?
Hermeneutics is about interpretation. About what and how we see. From where we see. Hermenuetics.
Uncomfortably, I think I begin to see the point of the shabby birthplace, rabble of an entourage, and the, uh, fragrant surroundings. Dietrich Bonhoeffer discovered it long ago in the madness and chaos of Hitler’s Germany and WW II. He wrote in a reflective essay entitled “After Ten Years”:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to
see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in
short, from the perspective of those who suffer....This perspective from below
must not become the partisan possession of those who are eternally dissatisfied;
rather, we must do justice to life in all its dimensions from a higher satisfaction,
whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above.’ This is the
way in which we may affirm it.”
This “experience of incomparable value” is for Bonhoeffer a hermeneutical transformation. It has to do with the point of view from which he viewed and evaluated the world. The high-born German theologian, through the trials, humiliations, and sufferings he endured for witness to Christ in the Third Reich, had experienced, some to see, the world “from the perspective of those who suffer.” In company with “the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled,” Bonhoeffer discovered the true vantage point from which God intends we see and respond to our world. Such a perspective Bonhoeffer claims must not be simply that of those “below” but that of all who seek to serve the world “from a higher satisfaction, whose foundation is beyond any talk of ‘from below’ or ‘from above.’”
This must be the meaning of the manger scene with all its crudities and inelegant oddities. This must be its hermeneutical lesson for us. It is only when we see (and this means in some measure experience, as it did for Bonhoeffer) and respond to our world from the vantage point of the largely unsatisfied needs and aspirations of those “below.” Only thus do we share in the passion that animates God himself – righteousness, the setting all things to rights that governs all his action. This divine passion to set all things right is what makes “this perspective from below” mandatory for those who seek to do God’s will.
It is this perspective that makes and keeps us aligned with God’s will and way in the world. Though we are tempted at every turn at avid and abandon this perspective, Messiah’s birth in a rude manger among a menagerie of beasts and bottom-dwellers reminds us in an unforgettable way of this foundational reality.
It’s uncomfortable. It sits uneasily with or sentimentalized sanitized celebration of Christmas. The manger scene keeps us honest, or at least of uneasy conscience. David Hayward captures this brilliantly in this recent cartoon:
May each of us be so immunized anew this Christmas!