As we prepare our Christmas talks and sermons, Ashley Hibbard reminds us of the dark side of the Nativity story.

Someone said to me recently that they would just like to see a well-done Nativity movie. That would be excellent, but we’re never going to get it. I think a well-done Nativity movie would leave most people feeling punched, and that’s not on anybody’s Christmas list.

All of us curate mental slide decks that help us to process abstract information into a workable mental model. We derive these slide decks from relatable locations, people, and events, or from what we’ve seen in movies or on the news.[1] It would be interesting to know what has made the greatest contribution to our Christmas story slide decks. I don’t know if it’s the peaceful Nativity scenes put up by most churches and homes, or our joy in the Lord’s birth, or the misleading of much of our Christmas music, but it is very easy to miss the incredible darkness of the Nativity. These are the words and pictures that spin in our heads this time of year:

“Glory to God in the highest!”
“A Saviour is Born!”
“Go to Bethlehem, and see him laid in a manger.”

This is the stuff of our Christmas story: of our scripture readings, our Nativity pageants, our festal music. The armies of heaven arrive on the beachhead of Earth, in a land occupied by an evil empire and all manner of spiritual darkness, and they come singing a message of peace, of a new king of righteousness and justice.

Something good has come. Something amazing and world-changing has come. Something—someone—to end sorrow and suffering. Light is here!

a baby with brown hair wrapped in a white swaddle

But, only kind of?

The humility of the coming baby king is so familiar to us that it is nearly unremarkable. But though we might give a cursory read of Matthew 2:16-18, we don’t stop and dwell there. By the end of the story, Bethlehem is sold out of baby-sized coffins. The synagogue nursery classes have been half-emptied and half traumatized, as every surviving little one has had a foreign soldier with bloodied sword loom over her, tearing off little clothes, requiring conclusive proof of gender. The only survivor of this terror is far away, safe from imminent danger, but even he is now a refugee, far from home, community, security. The light that came into the world has gone from his country of birth.

We’re uncomfortable with this aspect of our beloved story, and that appears not to be merely modern squeamishness, but also true historically. I can find no traditional Christmas carol that mentions the deaths of the baby boys of Bethlehem, except Coventry Carol.[2] Few even mention the flight to Egypt. It’s understandable. It’s a wild whiplash—what is technically called “cognitive dissonance.” We want this to be our beautiful story, but it is shot through with ugliness. We want to celebrate the birth of a baby into the Holy Family, but niggling in our mind are the weeping families of Bethlehem. We want to celebrate, but celebration feels wrong if we step unreservedly into the whole of the story. And so we appropriate only those pieces that fit our mood of celebration. But though it’s understandable, I would suggest that it is not excusable.

A photo of an empty basket with a blanket and teddy bear

The “man of sorrows” was also very much a baby of sorrows. Death and darkness are not only a part of the story of our King in his passion and death, but throughout his life, starting right at the beginning. We need to talk about the pain and horror of the Christmas story, because it is the story of innocents throughout history, and the world over. The horror of the Christmas story is for every family that has lost a child, for every father praying that the incubator keeps working, for every mother wondering if her hospital is considered a military target. For every family in South Sudan and Palestine and Venezuela and Ukraine and dozens of places the world over who simply hope that they can keep their children safe for another day from the evil that maliciously swallows life and peace.

“If Jesus were born today, he would be born in Gaza under the rubble,” says Rev. Dr Munther Isaac. Jesus came to endure the starkest horrors that the world has to offer. He came to suffer for us, but also to invite us, as his followers, to join him in that suffering. So embrace the cognitive dissonance. Exult in the wondrous highs of the angels proclaiming light and peace. Lament in the tragedy of senseless oppression and loss of life. That is what a well-done Nativity would look like. It would feel like whiplash. It would feel like being punched. But it would be right, and it would be real.

Ashley Hibbard (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is currently Director of Operations for the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, and serves as adjunct faculty at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada where she teaches Old Testament studies and biblical interpretation. She is also lead editor (with Helen Paynter) of the Journal for the Study of Bible and Violence.

[1]    William Webb and Gordon Oeste, Bloody, Brutal and Barbaic? (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 2019.
[2]    Sarah Travis made this observation last year in a CSBV blogpost. /2022/11/30/the-other-side-of-christmas/

The Nativity Story that Leaves You Punched
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One thought on “The Nativity Story that Leaves You Punched

  • 19th December 2023 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you Ashley for writing the post entitled ‘The Nativity Story that leaves you punched.’. I am involved with Sabeel-Kairos UK which partners with Kairos Palestine and Sabeel Jerusalem and I also did Bethlehem Bible College’s online course on Peace and Justice in a Palestinian context. Suffice to say that I am finding singing twee, jolly Christmas carols about Bethlehem very difficult this year. I just keep thinking of the real Bethlehem and what is going on there right now, and in the whole of Palestine – especially Gaza. I found reading your blog post really helpful because it gave me a spiritual and theological context on which to hang my feelings of discomfort, and as you say, cognitive dissonance. It helped me feel less alone in my experience and put words to my thoughts. Thank you


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