Christmas for those who feel shame.
‘His own people did not accept him’ – John 1:11
John’s biography of Jesus doesn’t begin with the story of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, or indeed with the little town of Bethlehem lying still on a starry night. It begins with an assertion: Jesus came into the world, and the world was ashamed of him.
If the world was ashamed of Jesus, then it was in part because Jesus seems so utterly shameless in the face of the world’s expectations for socially acceptable messiahs. In the first few chapters of John’s Gospel alone, he oversteps all sense of social propriety by renaming a man he’s only just met, declaring that angels will ascend and descend on him, turning water into wine at someone else’s party, and single-handedly starting a riot in the temple in one of the holiest seasons of the year.
And yet John reckons Jesus is far more shameless still than any of that reveals. Jesus, says the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel, is God himself, become a human being. Jesus is the category-confuser bar none, the one who refuses to be pinned down by social expectation or conventional rules about the separation between the holiness of God and the muckiness of fallen creation. When Luke tells us that Jesus is born in an animal’s feeding trough (amidst all the filth that must have entailed), the product of an out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy, he means to tell us exactly what John communicates: that right from his birth Jesus was shamelessly doing things that conventional wisdom says are shameful.
Human societies have always used shame as a way of policing conformity, as a way of beating down difference and of controlling variegation. Whatever you think about the social usefulness of shame, we all know how crushing feeling ashamed can be. At its easiest to bear, it is humiliating and raw and we want to cower in a corner so nobody will see us. At its worst, it is soul-destroying and makes us hate ourselves so much we want to be blotted out of existence altogether. The toughest thing about shame is that it’s just about the hardest emotion to escape from, because the only antidote to being ashamed is to behonoured, consistently and over and over again, and that doesn’t happen very often.
But in fact that’s exactly what happens at Christmas. At Christmas, God comes among us and honours our fallen state. To those of us who feel ashamed because we don’t fit in right, or we don’t act the way others expect us to – to all of us whom the world shames, God bursts into creation at Christmas and says, ‘you’re my people’. To those of us whose lives are messy, who don’t fit the mould society has formed for us, who are too different or stick out too much and who feel ashamed because of how people react to us, God comes to us in Jesus and says: be shameless like me.
If you are feeling ashamed, remember that Jesus holds you in a place of honour. Remember that people were ashamed of him first; and remember that in coming to be one of us he picks us, chooses us, and says ‘I will not be ashamed of you’. Because, as John put it, to all who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God. And what greater honour can there be than that?