My Monday travel posts posts usually reflect back on places I have been over the years. But today I’m reflecting on the place I spent yesterday, Christmas Day 2016: the tiny principality of Monaco.
Monaco is known as a playground for the rich and famous and there were certainly glimpses of that. But with all the shops closed and the rich hotel buffet lunches behind closed doors, it was perhaps a different side of the city-state that I loved and learned from.
What did I love about Monaco?
Built on the steep slopes of the Maritime Alps overlooking the Mediterranean, the city’s architecture reflects its topography.
The ports are filled with luxury yachts, at this time of year many moored for the winter.
The winding streets are familiar from watching F1 Grands-Prix.
Looking down from above is the old palace,
as well as the beautiful old Cathedral.
At this time of year, along the quai there are Christmas markets with food, handmade gifts and entertainment.
All throughout the city there are beautiful Christmas decorations and lights.
What did I learn from Monaco?
The highlight of my day was the time I shared with some of the wonderful people I met after visiting St Paul’s Anglican Church. Not only did we share a significant time celebrating Christ’s birth with carols and death and resurrection through the Eucharist, but they invited me to share an amazing Christmas lunch afterwards! Their hospitality and welcome to this visiting stranger was a beautiful reflection of the message of this day.
I was also reminded of God’s hospitality in the incarnation through the variety of crèches (nativity scenes) throughout the city.
In parks, on street corners, in churches and on display outside the palace, the variety was stunning.
What really struck me was how so many different people portray the scene of Jesus’ birth in a way that reflects their own life experience.
From 19th century Provençal sets
to Madagascan displays
and everything in between, it was a delight to discover the huge range!
And they also reminded me of the key truth of the incarnation that we celebrate on this day: God coming to us as one of us.
Emmanuel, God with us. It makes sense that we depict his coming in ways that look familiar to us, because God does come to us in the familiar, ordinariness of everyday life. He enters our world, speaks our language, lives our humanity.
This is the ultimate act of hospitality. The God who incarnates himself as one of us so that we might know his loving embrace.
As I was reminded of it in the crèche scenes and experienced it through God’s people at St Paul’s, may you know and experience the hospitality of the incarnation this Christmas season.
It has often been observed that our culture worships the “cult of celebrity.” The idea is that there are certain people we look up to, want to know about, want to be like, and want to meet. Whether that is because of certain abilities they display (sporting stars), or attributes they have (good looking actors), simple due to their visibility (Kim Kardashian) or even because of their family connections (Kate Middleton), the idea that would could in some way “get to know” these people drives a multi-billion dollar gossip magazine industry and results in large crowds gathering wherever these people go.
There’s an awful lot that could be said about that from a cultural-analysis perspective, and there’s a lot to dislike about it, but the reason I’m thinking about this today is entirely different. I’ve been listening to some of my favourite Christmas carols and wondering how these two thoughts connect.
The cult of celebrity seems to suggest to me that there is something deep within us as human beings that wants to connect with those whom we look up to or admire. That somehow we feel like getting “close” to them elevates us in some way. A famous person who takes time to hang out with a sick child in hospital is universally admired. Throughout history there has been prestige ascribed to having any kind of connection with royalty. Associating with those who have status and value seems to bring a kind of status and value of its own. Perhaps it overcomes our insecurities: if they like us, well then, we really must be likeable and everyone else will know so.
Imagine if a really famous person joined one of the groups or clubs you belong to. Suddenly your whole group would be elevated by their presence. Your status and value would somehow go up.
What on earth does all this have to do with Christmas?
The incarnation of God as a human being elevates all of us. It brings us status and value.
At Christmas, we celebrate the miracle of God choosing to become a human being. The creator of the universe chose to become part of His creation. And not just any part but our part. God became one of us. The Godhead for all eternity now includes a human being. The ruler of all things is now a member of our group.
That is a truly incredible, astonishing, surprising, mind-blowing, shocking thing to believe.
And it changes everything.
It tells us that God loves us. Immensely. Enough to become one of us.
It tells us that we are loveable. There is no need for insecurity. The One of ultimate worth has found us worthwhile.
But even more than that, it calls us to love one another because every single other person we share this planet with is not only created in the image of God, but is a being whom God has chosen to become like.
One of the implications of the incarnation is that God becoming human elevates us all. The refugee and the billionaire, the inmate and the Kardashian, the lost child and the superstar … each and every one is one whom Jesus chose to become like.