From opulent shopping malls in the Unites States to corners of crumbling adobe houses in rural Central America, the nativity scene surrounds us during this time of year. The manger with its bed of hay, the mules and shepherds, the cold Bethlehem night with an unfamiliar star shining brighter than the rest: there is an inescapable charm to this tender image that we have been celebrating at least since the first nativity scene was performed live by Saint Francis of Assisi over 700 years ago. It is the most fitting of images to commemorate what we celebrate: the incarnation of Emmanuel, God-among-us.
But what is the event that marks the beginning of this special time of year? Is it the first Sunday of Advent where we light the candle of expectation on the advent wreath, or is it the irresistible sales of Black Friday?
Undoubtedly, there are two faces to the season we celebrate as Christmas; two faces that are so radically divorced from one another that we would seem to be rather schizophrenic for combining the two.
On one side, Christmas is a time of community, of sharing, of reflection on the tenderness of the incarnation of Christ into our broken world. We celebrate and rejoice in the conviction that God became incarnate into a particular, historical reality: that of a poor Palestinian family living in an occupied country being forced to travel to their hometown by Imperial decree. Archbishop Ricardo Urioste of El Salvador considers the Christmas story to be defined by "A faith in a God who decides to undergo all the calamities through which the poor and ordinary folks pass...to take on the flesh and struggles and anxieties of the people." When we sing, "O come, O come Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here," we´re celebrating the face of Christmas that rejoices in the incarnation of God-among-us.
The other face of Christmas, however, is revealed in "Silver Bells," another popular carol: "City sidewalks, busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style...as the shoppers rush home with their treasures." Christmas is also most certainly a hectic time of unrestrained consumerism and a bombardment of commercial advertising provoking us to buy, buy, buy. It is the season when shopping becomes a coveted skill and the department stores and malls become true pilgrimage sites. In 2011, folks in the United States professed their allegiance to this face of Christmas to the tune of 469 billion dollars in holiday shopping purchases.
This lack of coherence between the two faces of the Christmas season is increasingly being perceived by more and more people. But why is it that these two faces of Christmas don´t belong together?
The remembrance of the Incarnation of Christ into our world is a celebration of intimacy and belonging; of community and sharing. Incarnation means undoubtedly that Christ became human, but also that he shared in the specific and particular circumstances of the place he was born into. He shared in the injustice of his people living under an imperial power, and in the poverty of being born in a manger. Incarnation is the ultimate identification and empathy with a certain place and a certain people.
The other face of Christmas, that of black Friday and cyber Monday and endless lines of shoppers, is the antithesis of incarnation. This "commercialized" version of Christmas that every good advertiser and publicity specialist drools over is born from an economy utterly divorced from any place or community. On the morning of Dec. 25, a child from Kalamazoo will unwrap a new video game made by another child in a sweatshop in Calcutta. A teenager in Manhattan will find under the tree a pair of shoes made by another underpaid teenager in Managua.
Whereas incarnation is characterized by the most intimate connection to a place and people, the economy of today is characterized by a complete dissociation with the distinctiveness and particularities of any place. Our society in general shares this unfortunate characteristic. Oddly, as folks travel home in the coming days to spend Christmas in the intimacy of family, they will find in airports advertisements proclaiming: "Nomads rejoice, we can now take you anywhere!" In the globalized, consumer-driven world in which we live, we are continuously tempted to be mobile, to belong nowhere, and to share faithful community with no one.
But if we belong nowhere and are connected to no person or place, then how can we live out the incarnation? The nativity scenes that we find at every corner during these days should be an invitation for us to reflect on how to honor the incarnation in the un-placed world of today.
In the hidden mountains of Northern El Salvador, we can find an answer to what genuine incarnation looks like today. Father Rogelio Ponseele is a Belgian priest who came to El Salvador during the violent decade of the 1970s and has been there ever since living alongside the peasants in the poorest villages of the country. A group of American college students doing their semester long immersion into the reality of Central America once asked Father Rogelio: "When you first came to El Salvador, how long were you originally going to stay?"
That question, loaded with the cultural baggage of living in an unattached and de-rooted society, brought a surprising answer to the group of students. Father Rogelio explained that, "I didn't come for a visit. I came to stay, to be part of the community and the difficult reality of the poor of El Salvador." He came to El Salvador to incarnate his life amongst those he was to serve.
Colombian philosopher and ethicist Adela Cortina, contributing to the implications of incarnation today says that, "Those who don´t want to conform to the norms of today's society, have to find their sustenance in the rootedness and warmth of concrete communities." Richard Klinedinst adds that, "In an age of detachment ... committing to a particular neighborhood and its subsistence is a genuinely radical act."
Advent should be the season for us to reflect, not just on the tenderness of the manger scene, but of what that scene represents below the surface. It should push us to understand that God became incarnate in the world of the poor and oppressed and shared intimately in that reality. It should encourage us to make real the incarnation, to belong to a community and share in that reality which inevitably will include laughter and tears, joys and sufferings, untold possibilities and real limits. Following the example of the Incarnation of Jesus, we should also strive to become incarnate among the poor so as to better understand their reality, the injustice that gives rise to their poverty, and our own participation in that injustice.
Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, during his last Christmas reminded us that "It's time to look for the Baby Jesus outside of the pretty images of our nativity scenes. We need to look for him amongst the malnourished children that have gone to bed tonight without eating, among the children forced by their poverty into selling newspapers on the street corners that will sleep tonight with their unsold papers as their blankets in doorways on the streets. We need to look for the Baby Jesus in the poor shoe shiner who perhaps made enough money today to buy a small gift for his mother, or perhaps wasn't able to make enough money today and will be scolded by his stepfather." Romero, speaking from a profound connection to a concrete historical place and time and reality, again shows us what Christmas would look like if we were to take seriously the Incarnation.
Clearly, the incarnation is the beginning of the Christian faith. The birth of God-among-us is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. If there were no incarnation, there would be nothing more to the Christian message. But because God became a part of our broken world, Jesus was eventually led to the ultimate consequences of that faithful incarnation. His devotion to being incarnate in the harshness of the reality he was born into, brought him face to face with the injustice and violence and evil so prevalent in our world. Christ's incarnation eventually led us to the other major Christian celebration: the death and resurrection of Holy Week.
The American farmer and writer Wendell Berry urges us to "practice resurrection" in our daily lives. To practice resurrection is to live as if the Kingdom of God is existent and real and bearing on our lives and livelihoods. But to practice resurrection, we must first have incarnated our lives into the particularities of a specific place, into the uniqueness of a concrete community, and also into the sometimes despondent reality that imperils the well being of that community. Without incarnation in place, there can be no community to practice resurrection.
May this season of Advent, then, be the motivation that pushes us toward living in incarnational community.