“Sitz im Leben” is a German phrase often used by theologians, meaning your situation in life. Since most of us are not ruthlessly objective beings, our Sitz im Leben determines much of how we look at the world. A poor schoolteacher from Chiapas, a shepherd from the Rez, an affluent businessman from Kansas City, a Palestinian craftsman from Bethlehem, a Lofoten fisherman, a Siberian train engineer, a Pakistani nurse, an Igbo farmer, all will have their own perspective.
Most American Christians live in comfort and relative safety, even when they think they don’t. Combined with that is an isolation from the rest of the world, with little news or knowledge of that which happens outside of the U.S. unless it is connected to Americans.
From that Sitz im Leben, the manger scene has something of a romantic glow to it, kind of like camping out in the backyard, the rich flavor of a small campfire wafting on the soft summer breezes, the prospect of pancakes in the morning after a night in the tent, with the air mattress and sleeping bag.
The reality of life in Palestine in the first century was quite different. Quite aside from the contrast between a modern hospital delivery room and a pungent, not antiseptic, probably drafty stable, Jesus was born into a place where the screws of oppression were being tightened as violent uprisings were contemplated, and occasionally implemented. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem as pawns in a political consolidation, made to travel at just the wrong time for them in order for the Empire’s tax roles to be more efficient.
Then things start to be seriously bad. The visit of the Magi is a wonderful harbinger of the light that is to come from Incarnation to shine on all peoples. As is not uncommon, such activity triggers an evil reaction in a fallen world. The Holy Innocents, whose memorial was observed last Thursday (Dec. 28), are what modern terminology designates “collateral damage, ” violence done to those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose lives are a matter of indifference to the violent and powerful. In ordering the deaths of these children (see Matthew 2:16-18), Herod knew only one of them could be the intended target, but had no compunctions about the death of all of them as a security measure.
As the account details (Matthew 2:13-15), Joseph was previously warned in a dream to get out of Dodge with his family and flee as refugees to Egypt. The refugee journey was much more difficult than the one to Bethlehem, across serious desert with manifold dangers. Nor was there likely any welcoming committee waiting in Egypt. Nevertheless, no doubt Mary and Joseph were grateful to be able to escape, reaching Egypt without any barrier blocking them. Somehow they managed to get by in the strange new land.
“La plus ca change, c’est la plus de la meme chose.” The story may be two thousand years old, but it has a contemporary ring to it. Technology has changed, so that swords are replaced by guns and bombs and donkeys by cars and planes, but there has been no progress at all in the human heart.
This story is a downer in the middle of our twelve days of Christmas celebration. But if we are to grasp what Incarnation, and indeed life on the Lord’s earth, is all about, it is crucial. The Christ has not come to congratulate us on our virtue but to bring us salvation from our evil. Failing to understand that removes the joy from the Christmas celebration, because it denies the reason for the Christmas event.
Thus, the inhabitants of twenty-first century Bethlehem, mostly Christian Arabs, celebrate the event this week, in the spot where the manger lay, as they have for the past two millennia. These days, the parish Boy Scouts bagpipe band leads the Archbishop in procession through the “little town of Bethlehem” to the Church of the Nativity once again, as is the custom. Archbishop Hanna’s Christmas message notes how President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, is “an insult to all Christian and Muslim Palestinians” and makes a mockery of the Christmas message of “peace on earth.” Because today Bethlehem is a place where the screws of oppression are being tightened while violent uprisings are contemplated and occasionally implemented. And for every Christian left in Bethlehem, another is a refugee or exile elsewhere. Innocent children born in Bethlehem today are still collateral damage, oppressed by the powerful in the struggles of evil forces to triumph and rule, banish and jail, the seemingly eternal “nakhba” of sinful mankind.
But Palestine is a small place. Evil abounds in much wider circles, collateral damage is all around us. Whether it is the unborn of America, the endangered teens of El Salvador, the dispossessed of Myanmar, the middle class refugees of Syria, or the myriad other sad and unfortunate situations in life around the world today, the need for the saving love of God which has come to us at Christmas is the same.
Most of us can find a warm spot for the young of almost any species, and it is in caring for the young that the love of God often shines through us brightly. It thus takes a particularly cold individual to be a Herod, to deliberately and indifferently hurt the young. I confess that it baffles me when so many Americans are willing to offer up so many as collateral damage to some perceived advantage in the Sitz im Leben. It begins with the unborn, but doesn’t end there. It continues with funding cuts to almost every program helping children, from prenatal and newborn care, to early childhood daycare and education, to dooming kids in poor neighborhoods to substandard public schools right through making college unaffordable for millions of qualified students, along with refusing to provide access to healthcare to so many. It includes the nightmare of pedophilia and other child abuse. And this list doesn’t even venture into the consequences of foreign policy.
If so many can coldly do these things to our nation’s young, is there any wonder that they can be indifferent to the suffering of others around the world, even to the children who show up in desperation at our border? You can coldly ignore all this, watch the sitcoms and games, and make sure that your Christmas season never includes the observance of this day of the Holy Innocents. Happy holidays!
But in Bethlehem today, the children are still collateral damage, and Americans have much more in common with Herod than with the children in the parish of the Holy Nativity. Herod, too, wanted to preserve his good standard of living and was willing to cause a lot of grief, other people’s grief, to ensure it. If you want Christ back in Christmas, you might want to begin where Jesus did, in Bethlehem. Not the toy one surrounding your nativity scene, but the real one, where today, real children are struggling just as they did back then. I suspect the current Sitz im Leben for Jesus is to be there with them, and not in the halls of the privileged. If you want a second opinion on that, check with his Mother (Luke 1:46-55, and especially verses 51-53).