Christ Born Again This Christmas

December 24, 2008

Glynn Cardy

Christmas Eve

 

Jesus liked surprises. He never though had a Christmas stocking, or a Christmas tree, or even a Christmas dinner. This is to be expected given that Jesus was Jewish and Christmas hadn’t evolved. But he did give and receive gifts, and he did like surprises.

 

Most of his stories contained a surprise. The Prodigal Son has the surprise of a father who though deeply insulted by his sons continues to love and include them. The Good Samaritan has the surprise of the rescuing hero being a reviled outsider. The story of the Canaanite woman rebuking Jesus has the surprise of a male being bested and thus belittled by a woman. The story of feeding the 5,000 has the surprise of a young child having the faith that initiates the event.

 

All the surprises challenge the cultural assumptions of the audience – assumptions like wrongdoers should be punished, foreigners are not to be trusted, men are superior to women, and children don’t have real faith. Such assumptions, explicitly or implicitly, persist even today.

 

Each story also contains a gift. The gift of a father’s embrace, the gift of a stranger’s hand, the gift of a woman’s courage, and the gift of a boy’s costly generosity. These were all expensive gifts. Yet none can be bought at a department store, and none would fit easily into a Christmas stocking.

 

It was not unexpected then that when writers 50 or so years after Jesus’ death constructed two evocative narratives purportedly describing his birth they consistently included the themes of surprise and gift.

 

It was a surprise that the mother was a peasant not a princess. It was a surprise he was born in a barn not a palace. It was a surprise that he was a refugee in his early years. It was a surprise that his first visitors were thieving shepherds and not the ministers and minions of a royal household. It was a surprise that astrologers from the East paid him homage when their race and religion were not welcome.

 

These surprises all point to the gift of the adult Jesus who would be a peasant, familiar with poverty and oppression, and critical of the amassing of power and wealth. They point to the gift of the adult Jesus who would welcome and include the sanctimonious and the criminal, the familiar and the foreign, and those of his faith and those deemed heretical. They point to the gift of the adult Jesus who honoured nuisances and nobodies, the lowest and the least, as manifestations of God among us.

 

Of course the historical accuracy of these birth narratives - angels, a virgin conceiving, exotic visitors, et al – is highly suspect. Their truth is not in the literal events, but in the messages they convey. We need to just enjoy these stories as creative theological constructions and listen for the truths within.

 

The earliest writer in the Christian Scriptures, Paul, understood Jesus to be the very ‘image of God’. Paul gives his birth narrative in one short phrase: ‘[Jesus] came in the form of a slave’ .

 

It was not unusual or unexpected that God would be in a human form. There is plenty of historical evidence in Greco-Roman times of God being in such a form. That form was the emperor – like Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, or Nero. That form was adult, male, militarily powerful, and rich. Such a God was a penetrating conqueror, demanding submission and tribute. In return that God offered a stable social order - a ladder of privilege, class, and gender distinction. At the bottom of the ladder were slaves.

 

Two political and spiritual tectonic plates were grinding against each other in the second half of the 1st century. One was the gospel of Caesar – male power, a stratified society, offering what it called ‘peace and salvation’ [code for a stable status quo]. The other was the gospel of Jesus – a freedom for those on the lower rungs, equality and mutuality among all, offering what it called ‘peace and salvation’ [code for freedom and justice for the marginalized].

 

They each offered different visions of good news. Paul’s Jesus as ‘slave’ lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the form of God should act. The form of God being a slave was foolishness in their eyes, but to Paul it was God’s wisdom.

 

From the parables and stories about the adult Jesus, and with the insights of early theologians like Paul, the Church created the Christmas stories. At every turn there is a surprise.

 

Maybe the biggest surprise and gift at Christmas was that God was seen as incarnated in a baby. Babies are unknown quantities. They mess when you don’t want mess. They cry when you want to sleep. They change your life. We don’t know what they will be like when they grow up – we don’t know whether they will be handsome, intelligent, considerate, wise, or spiritual. That’s why the Romans believed God was incarnated in adult emperors, offering power, might, and certainty. The Christian God, on the other hand, who is here in a baby, was seen as a playful giggling God, undisciplined, and weak. With this God there is vulnerability and uncertainty.

 

Given this legacy of surprise and gift we need to ask how God might be for us today. Is our experience of God that which challenges the elitist assumptions of society, the ladders of success and honour, and lampoons them? Is our experience that God sides with despised and the destitute when markets plunge and there isn’t enough to share? Is our experience that God surprises us when we least expect it – broadening our mind to be more generous, more accepting, and more loving towards all people everywhere.

 

A parent’s heartfelt hug is a Christmas present, especially when he or she ignores the wounds previously inflicted on their pride. A stranger’s smile and assistance is a Christmas present, especially when the foreigner is ignoring or over-riding their fear of rejection. A woman’s bravery in the face of disapproval is a Christmas present – one can get bloodied trying to crack glass ceilings. A boy’s gift, given knowing that he would suffer its loss, is a Christmas present. Often such small powerful gifts like these lie close at hand, waiting wrapped up within those who are already part of our lives and within ourselves.

 

When you or I give a little, or smile a little, or speak up a little, or care a little, or help a little something happens. We release into the matrix of our community a little bit of God. We give a gift. This gift mingles with other such gifts. Giving begets giving. Grace begets grace. Hope begets hope. And we express this magical and mysterious experience by using the metaphor that Christ has been born again among us this Christmas.

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