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The other night I talked to a man whose whole face was lit up. Enthusiastically he said to me: “Jesus is one of us.” He was referring to our latest billboard. The 'us' was a reference to sexual minorities. For him it was a new thought, and an inspiring thought, that Jesus might have been gay.
Having read on the subject of Jesus' sexual orientation a couple of decades ago I wondered whether anyone would get enthusiastic about this billboard. Wasn’t it a case of 'been there, debated that'?
But this gentleman's face was radiant. The word 'Emmanuel" [God with us] came to mind. He had the same sort of excitement that I imagine the poor of Palestine had some two millennia ago when the message was proclaimed that God-in-Jesus was one with them.
This, God-with-us, is the fundamental theological truth of Christmas.
There are actually multiple Christmas’ celebrated at this time of year – all of them with sprinklings of truth. I would group them in three categories: the popular Christmas, the biblical Christmas, and the theological Christmas.
The popular Christmas has special and symbolic food – like cakes and candy canes. It has Christmas trees and lights – all with their own legends. It has gift-giving, parties, family gatherings, and feasting. It has music, love, joy, and peace as its themes. It has Santa, elves, and fairies. And it has a beautiful, clean, European-looking baby in a bassinette of straw, watched over by his adoring pure mother.
There is powerful mythology behind this Christmas – some of which we want to affirm, and some of which we want to question. A billboard that criticizes popular Christmas needs to be very careful less it’s misunderstood.
Then there is the biblical Christmas – the stories of Jesus’ birth told in the Gospels. In the biblical Christmas there is a scandalous pregnancy. There is brave Mary and Joseph journeying away from kin. There is Jesus born in the squalor of poverty. There are angelic choristers singing revolution in the air. There are low-life shepherds dropping in. There are mysterious Zoroastrians also coming by and incurring political displeasure. Plus there is travel – lots of arduous travel – to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and to Nazareth. Most of us know that these themes are an amalgamation of two quite separate stories in the books of Matthew and Luke. Most of us also know that they are not literal history, but rather created history that informs us about the ministry and mission of Jesus the adult.
It is difficult to create billboards about the biblical Christmas because the general public usually doesn’t get it. Popular Christmas has trumped the Bible. The visitors representing foreign religion have been made into ‘kings’. The low life shepherds have been made respectable. Jesus as a threat to imperial power has been glossed over and ignored. Angels are given wings and haloes, and had their political spines removed. Mary is not in the least bit scandalous.
The theological meaning of Christmas hinges around the location of God – the question of where is God to be found, and the related question of whom therefore does God mix and mingle with.
For centuries God was assumed to be all powerful, controlling life and death, favour, fortune, and fate. The closest human resemblance to that power was the almighty emperor or monarch, who was often referred to as a ‘son of God’ or divine. God, like powerful kings, sat on a high throne commanding all their subjects. God mixed with royalty and the privileged elite.
To this marriage of divine and earthly power was added the notion of purity. Poverty was a sign of impurity – after all the poor were dirty and lived in dirty hovels didn’t they? The rich were blessed with money [and therefore obviously blessed by God], and lived in cleaner surroundings. They were therefore acceptable and pure in God’s sight.
This coalition of the notions of divinity, power and purity on the one hand with the secular and spiritual elites on the other is an all-pervasive myth written into the architecture, art, customs, and literature of our heritage. God was where power and purity were, and power and purity were where the ruler was: in a palace or castle or mansion. Or so the predominant reasoning went.
The offence, the scandal of the Christian message, is that God was revealed in a lowly carpenter, of dubious origins, who had little wealth, no armaments, no palace, and few followers. This is the message of the birth narratives: the Christian God was born in poverty, surrounded by persons of dubious reputation. And this God continues to be amongst those in poverty and surrounded by persons of dubious reputation.
There is nowhere where God is not. This is good news for those on the margins – prisoners and ex-prisoners, sexual minorities, those with disabilities, recent immigrants, the unemployed – indeed anyone who experiences prejudice from persons or institutions with power.
It is also bad news for those who think that God is in their back pocket, believing what they believe, discriminating against those they discriminate against. It is this group that has found our latest billboard, suggesting that Jesus could have been gay, so offensive. “How could he have been one of those disgusting sinners?” they screamed at Clay and I. Anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of pure is ‘disgusting’.
If you go looking for God it’s more likely that you won’t find Her relaxing at home amongst the high and mighty, the rich and influential, and those pedaling prejudice. She will be out back, having a drink with the so-labeled ‘sinners’, mixing it with the heathens and the heretics, the troubled and the violated, and upsetting expectations. The idea that She is God is deeply offensive to those who like to think that their wealth, power, and purity are indicators of their blessedness. The idea that God might be a ‘She’ is as offensive today among conservative religious people as the notion in the 1st century that God might be born in, and live in, poverty was to their predecessors.
As with many things in Christianity this offensive message about the location of God being among the impure and the lowly, in time got subverted by the powerful elites.
As any singer of Christmas Carols knows Jesus after his death and resurrection was made a ‘king’, enthroned on high, and was seated at the right hand of God [who was also ‘high’], from whence he would rule over us. Jesus was always a king, but he lowered himself to mix and mingle with the lowly, before returning to his high royal home. This is how the powerful elites came to interpret the incarnation: an up, down, up movement. Jesus came, like a visiting dignitary, and camped at the City Mission to show he cared. But he wasn’t from the Mission, and he didn’t stay long-term at the Mission. Rather, after some 33 years, he returned to his royal home in the wealthier section of heaven.
Yet the theological truth of Christmas is that in Jesus God is dethroned. Jesus reveals a God who never sat on a throne or wanted to. Jesus reveals a God who was never a king and never wanted to be. God-in-Jesus was always at the City Mission, and will always be. God is the kindness offered, and the justice hoped for.
Jesus reveals a God who overturns our ideas of purity, and suggests that those who are kind to the discriminated are the most pure of all. Jesus reveals a God who wants to be known by the love that overcomes prejudice, which welcomes every shade of sinner and saint, and mingles with them in the messiness of here and now. There is no coming down from heavenly heights to save us. Heaven, like God, has always been here in the kindness, in the love, and in the desire to build a just and fair society for all.
So Christmas is a reality check for churches. Enjoy the popular Christmas, and the generosity and joy that it often promotes. Enjoy the biblical Christmas, and the pointers to the radical inclusiveness taught by Jesus and his followers. But also remember the theological Christmas: that God is with us, and has always and will always be, with the fragile and dependent, the poor and the suffering, the excluded and the discriminated.