Coolamon Baby – Glenn Loughrey 2016
Have you ever been to an event, concert or a holiday destination that has been a major disappointment only to read somewhere later a report waxing lyrical about what an outstanding event, concert or holiday destination it was? You find yourself asking, did we go to the same event or destination, was the writer ever actually there; it seems like we attend two different events, or concert or holiday resort?
For most of my life that has been my experience of Christmas. Growing up in a household where Christmas celebrations quickly descended in an alcohol fuelled disaster, I came to dread Christmas and disbelieve the story we were supposed to celebrate. I listened to the story in church, watched the decorations in the shop windows and witnessed the joyful festivities of others and wondered if we were actually celebrating the same event? Did I somehow live in another dimension were the joy and peace of Christmas simply was unavailable to such as me? I still find this time of the year difficult.
This split can also be found in the Gospel story we just read. Luke provides us with two polaroid prints of the same events but they could not be more different. One is a black and white print of two scared and lonely young middle eastern people fulfilling the need to be counted by a tyrannical government and expecting their first child. They find themselves in unfamiliar territory, nowhere to stay and a baby due any moment. They take whatever refuge they are offered and find themselves sharing a space with animals and their food troughs. Their baby is born alone and un-welcomed except by the barn animals standing around and his parents. One can only begin to imagine how scared they were.
The other is a coloured photo full of lights, surround sound and a cast of thousands. Here the angel Gabriel comes with the multitudes to announce to shepherds as representatives of those whom God favours the birth of the Anointed One. Terrifying but majestic, an advertising campaign launch bigger than anything a major ad company could dream up. It’s inclusive promises are writ big and bold and are so effective, the shepherds head into town to find out whether this is fair dinkum or not.
The little family would have wondered if they were in the same story, if their poverty and homelessness and the brutality of the birth was some how misplaced in a cosmic trailer to the incarnation event. How did they fit and why? How were they privileged to suffer poverty and violence and why wasn’t their child, the Anointed One welcomed in a way commensurate with his title and genealogy?
Jesus was born in a violent world. War and occupation was ever present in his life just as it had been in the lives of his parents. There is nothing beautiful about this manger scene and the heavenly messengers in the field fail to make it so. In fact they make it worse. Herod becomes inflamed when he hears of the goings on in Bethlehem and sets about genocide of his own. The isolation of the birth becomes an isolation of a people and a life until the predictable end.
How do we make sense of these two pictures and the crumpling of hope so loudly proclaimed? How do we live in the shadow of the manger and the shepherds’ field in a world that has changed little? Unjust wars destroy the babies born in Aleppo, Yemen, Mosul, the Sudan, West Timor, Myanmar and Central Australian indigenous communities. Violence destroys the hopes of little ones in houses in our cities where domestic violence has not lessened. Young people are being traumatised not for a moment but for a lifetime through the dysfunction of a world still clinging precariously to the promise of ‘peace among those whom he favours’.
How do we embrace the hope of those words and the little boy in a food trough and change the world in which we live? The great intentions of God can only become real if they are embodied in ordinary actions every day by those he favours. It is us who has to take the steps to bring about peace on earth. It is us who has to resist the temptation to fear, the beginning of all violence and war according to Thomas Merton.
Our fears and anxieties lead us into savaging others with our words and our actions, our anxieties and fears make us defensive and protective to such an extent we have to eliminate or annihilate the other. No one sets out to hurt but does so when it is the most effective to protect him or herself from what they fear. It can start out innocently but escalates beyond imagination as our fears are magnified and feed by the ego self who cannot afford to fail.
We can begin by understanding that the baby born in Bethlehem was not a special baby due special attention. The baby born in Bethlehem is an ordinary baby just like your baby, your child’s baby and the babies being born this moment in places like Aleppo. When we do this we normalise the experiences of all born as a baby while elevating each to the sanctity we attribute to the Christ child.
In other words the affection and worship we save for Jesus is required of us for all born into this world. We are all, in some mystical way, the embodiment of God in the world. Our birth is special and unexpected, an expression of poverty and dependence we almost instantly seek to forget. Yet it is this innocence, this infinite trust in the love and nurture of God in others we bring with us which empowers us to be one of the many who make up the angelic choir.
If only we could let go of our fears and anxieties and begin to trust as we did at our first breath then we would begin to change our world. There would be need for violence for there would be no thing to defend. All would be valued and worshipped, the child born in Aleppo, Mosul or some remote township in Central Australia or the child born in a home near here, as we worship the boy born in Bethlehem.
It is the difference in the two scenes in Luke’s Gospel. It is no good the shepherds responding and going to visit the baby or the Wisemen who bring gifts, something must be transformed by the encounter, something has to be changed by what they witness.
Tonight as we come to contemplate this event we must come to be transformed by the birth of the Christ child so that we leave here committed to respect, justice and love and not to fear, violence and tyranny. It is up to us.