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On The (Gritty) Birth of Christ

The birth of my son was a frighteningly joyous affair—and a long time coming. Like most parents-to-be, the nine months prior to his birth were full of exhaustion and elation, hope and fear, and more than a little nervous uncertainty. My wife labored constantly for forty-eight hours, the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals only giving her slight relief. When my son finally allowed himself to be pushed into the world through a sea of bodily fluids, we were both overjoyed, though my wife’s relief was of course exponentially greater than my own. We were exhausted, but we slept little that night, kept awake by an anxious excitement and the uncanniness of it all. What I remember most, though, is putting my son into his car seat for the first time before leaving the hospital: I was utterly responsible and utterly terrified. My son would remind me of this in the days that followed through what seemed like almost constant and inconsolable screams.

Experiences and memories vary, of course, but I’m sure these emotions are familiar to most parents. Having children is wonderful and beautiful, but it’s also nerve-racking and frustrating, and that doesn’t change as time goes on. I’m sure most parents, at least the honest ones, have wondered silently or aloud, “What was I thinking?” Such ambivalence explains the success of Adam Mansbach’s 2011 bestseller Go the F*** to Sleep, which he describes as a “children’s book for adults.”1

I bring all this up because we are at that time of year when Christians claim that birth matters. Specifically, it is during Christmas that Christians celebrate and attempt to make present one particular birth, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians claim, of course, that his was no ordinary birth: in him, God became human through the labor of a virgin, meaning that his birth would have cosmic significance.

We are also at that time of year when we hear constant, not always gentle, reminders to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Often well-meaning, these reminders refer us back to such significance as a bulwark against the overcommercialization or, what’s often considered much worse, apparent secularization of this important holiday. For instance, a federal judge in Los Angeles recently upheld Santa Monica’s ban on unattended displays in the Palisades Park, a ban that had been put into effect in June as the result of a series of showdowns between atheists and Christians over public nativity scenes. Commenting on the decision, a lawyer representing the Santa Monica Nativity Scene Committee, which had sponsored the nativity scenes since the 1950s, claimed that the “‘war on Christmas’ was effectively lost for good.”2

I find it hard to get upset over such things. To me, the Christ we’re supposed to “keep” in Christmas through the “war” we are putatively fighting is often little more than sentimentality. And ironically this phrase, “keep Christ in Christmas,” has itself become commodified: there are car magnets, bumper stickers, and various kitschy decorative items emblazoned with the phrase, all so we can remember the “real” meaning of Christmas—for a price. But what’s more interesting is the nativity scene itself. The typical nativity scene, including those once found in Palisades Park, bear little resemblance to the event of birth. Mary is absolutely poised, showing little sign that she has just labored and that she has done so in less than ideal conditions; Joseph is stoic, certain in the responsibility that he now bears; and Jesus is perfectly angelic, not even a whimper escaping his lips. The scene is captured well in verse in the carol Silent Night:

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

I don’t want to flat out dismiss such images. They are, however, one-sided, and the minute we forget this, our celebration of the nativity turns sentimental and nostalgic. Certainly, the birth of Jesus must have been full of hope. But it must also have been a messy, exhausting, and angst-ridden event, even if our theological traditions have been hesitant to affirm as much. A silent night, perhaps, but I’m sure that at some point Mary and Joseph could empathize with Adam Mansbach.

Why does all this matter? We live in a culture that currently thrives on the production of nostalgia, a culture that commercializes sentimentality at the expense of realism. This is especially the case at Christmas. If we are to really “keep Christ in Christmas,” then the usual sentimental nativity scene just won’t do. Not only does it play into the hands of the culture it is often thought to criticize but it also turns Jesus’s birth into a fairly tale, a sweet story one really can’t blame atheists for ridiculing. This is my image of the nativity: Mary disheveled, wet, and utterly exhausted; Joseph relieved but unsure and more than a little terrified; and Jesus crying his lungs out. The realism in such a scene is still joyous but in a different way, in a way that reminds us of the terrifying responsibility that all births involve, especially, as Christians claim, the birth of Jesus. Perhaps we all need such reminders, at least once a year.


1. Mansbach in Reyhan Harmanci, “A Whim, a Book, and, Wow!,” New York Times, April 28, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/us/29bcbart.html?scp=1&sq=adam%20mansbach&st=cse.

2. William J. Becker Jr., “The Santa Monica Nativity Scene Case: Why We Lost,” American Thinker, November 21, 2012, http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/11/the_santa_monica_nativity_scene_case_why_we_lost.html.

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Hollis Phelps :
Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at The University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology.