There are almost as many depictions of Christmas as there are definitions of love. From pop songs to greeting cards to sentimental movies, Christmas and love are constantly being marketed as whatever consumers want them to be. Christmas is about snow (unless you live in the South). Christmas is about romance (unless you’re single). Christmas is about family (unless you are estranged or bereaved). Christmas is about getting gifts (until you become the one who has to purchase the gifts).
The older I get, the more I sympathize with Charlie Brown in his exasperated cry, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus’s response is to tell the story of the angels announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds. (Luke 2:8-14) While this is a great response (especially for a cartoon), it leaves unanswered two questions I would like to explore:
1) What does this story reveal about God? and
2) How are we to respond to such a God?
Answer 1: Christmas reveals a dirty God
God is usually envisioned as being far above our earthly existence. He is seated among the heavens, unchangeable and untouchable. We, however, are earth-bound. From dust we came; to dust, we will return (Ecclesiastes 3:20). This has been the human condition since the first dust-man, Adam (whose name literally means ground or dirt). When we groundlings look for God, our eyes inevitably turn upward, for surely no salvation can come from the midst of such dirty earth-dwellers. Ours is the realm of the low-down and the down-and-out. We have come to view our connection with the dirt as an intrinsically evil condition. If someone is corrupt, we say they have dirt on their hands. When someone speaks perversely or profanely, we say they have a dirty mouth. We label all kinds of unholy and undesirable things as dirty. But I doubt that you have ever heard God referred to as dirty.
But a dirty God is exactly what the Christmas story reveals. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word which was from the beginning, this is the one who comes in the fragile body of an infant–born not in the sterile environs of a modern hospital, but in a feeding trough. It’s scandalous. It’s dirty. It’s beautiful.
Christmas tells of a God whose great love for us led him to become a dust-man like us. The Creator of the universe needed his diaper changed. The toddler Jesus crawled around in the dirt. The adult Messiah experienced body-odor, gas, bad breath, and all the other things we try to pretend we don’t have. More than that, he was constantly surrounded by others who had body-odor, gas, bad breath, and all those things we try to avoid in others. Jesus had twelve disciples, but not a single toothbrush or stick of deodorant among them. When Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of Heaven, he doesn’t speak of polished marble floors and mahogany desks, he talks about throwing seed on the ground, of a treasure buried in a field, of a mustard seed in the garden. “If you want to understand the Kingdom,” Jesus says, “stop stargazing and go dig around in the dirt.”
Jesus tells a story about two people who lived near each other. One was a rich man who enjoyed a relatively clean life–good food, good clothes, good house. The other was absolutely filthy– covered with dirt, infections, and dog slobber. But it’s not the rich man that ends up in the bosom of Abraham, but filthy Lazarus. Even though we know how the story ends, we often fail to grasp the point. We keep drawing lines between the clean and the dirty, and we keep assuming that God is on the side of the clean. But Jesus is constantly taking the side of the dirty–the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the infectious, the castaways, the self-confessed sinners.
How are we to respond to such a dirty God?
Answer 2: Christians are called to get dirty
Christians everywhere are getting dirty. I know a church that often meets under bridges. I know of several churches that provide food for the hungry. I know of several churches that are embedded in communities that are plagued by crime. I know a church whose worship space doubles as a homeless shelter. I’ve worshiped in a church filled with the aroma of incense and another filled with the lingering odor of homeless guests. Which smell do you think is a more fragrant offering to the God revealed in Jesus? If you are looking for a great Christmas reenactment, skip the pageant and participate in the dirty work of the Body of Christ.
It’s scandalous. It’s beautiful. It’s what Christmas is all about.