Giles Fraser: Christmas is meant to be shocking
|In my experience, cartoonists are a lively bunch. They do tend to like a drink and a good argument. So I was much looking forward to my Christmas lunch with Martin Rowson from The Guardian, who is one of the most savage political cartoonists of the day, and a vocal supporter of the British Humanist Society.Like his great hero, William Hogarth, nobody is spared satire — as exemplified in the podgy, jug-eared, and exhausted-looking portrait of me he did in the pub.
For Rowson, satire is all about bringing down the mighty from their seat. This is how we got on to the subject of his objections to God.Of course, he does not believe that God exists, and he rejects “superstition” in just the way one would expect. But the more interesting thing is how he associates God with precisely the sort of high-and-mighty authority that ought to be brought down a peg or two.
My argument is that Christmas does exactly this: that, in a sense, it is the humiliation of God, and the rejection of the idea that God is to be exclusively defined by grandeur and kingly authority. Moreover, to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. Christmas is a sort of cosmic satire.He didn’t buy this, of course. But what is most interesting is how many in the Church don’t seem to buy it, either.
Too often, we go along with the normalisation of the Christmas story, turning it into a kindly pantomime about a baby. Familiarity has made it all so uncontentious.Yet the story of Christmas is supposed to be shocking. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is about as offensive an idea to a first-century Jew as you could possibly imagine.
One of the guiding ideas of Jewish theology is that the sacred needs to be kept at a safe distance from the profane. Part of the purpose of the Temple is to separate the holy from the unholy, through a series of walls and exclusions. Christmas is a wholesale rejection of this idea: God gets re-imagined in the midst of the profane.The fact that this idea has lost its power to shock is the extent to which we no longer understand Christmas. Perhaps it is only Jews who really understand how upsetting the incarnation is supposed to be. Submerged under mountains of Christmas sugar, too often we think of the whole Christmas story as being as natural and homely as the birth of a baby boy.
Yet, as the theological traumas of the first few centuries of Christian theologybear witness, God-as-human was a deeply startling thought, and one that took Christians generations to get their head around. It is much worse than anything Rowson could dream up — and much more transformative, too.
What would Jesus do… today of all days?
What would Jesus do… today of all days?
Lo within a manger lies
Doing what? Sleeping? Staring at the ceiling? Filling the first century equivalent of nappies? an occasional infantile gurgle or puke?
What did Jesus do? Not much, I’d say — certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The manger scene reveals the Son of God in a state of almost complete passivity.
The baby in the manger is almost as helpless as the tortured body on the cross.
And yet Christian theology says that in these two episodes of utter helplessness Jesus accomplished his life’s work, far beyond our capacity to describe let alone understand the implications. They are the heart of the good news, the foundation upon which everything else rests.
Jesus’ passivity is however, in itself, good news because it puts the boot firmly into into three pervasive pictures of God that are familiar but distinctly bad news. Disposing of these unwanted visitors to the manger can only clear the air.
First out the door is the “Action Man” Pocket God, always busy seeing people and doing things, fixing up the world, zapping the baddies and blessing the goodies real good. It’s a compelling, natural picture of God; indeed it’s the way most of us would tackle the job of being divine — it’s just not God’s. If God were like that, we’d have to say, with Woody Allen, he was something of an underachiever, as the good go unblessed and the innocent suffer. These facts, as much as the sleeping baby in the manger, indicate that this image is false.
Another god the sleeping baby disposes of is the absent Deist watchmaker, designing and setting everything off then letting it run. Whatever else he is, Jesus in the manger is the heart of the scene, present in the engaging way that babies become the centre of attention by not doing very much.
Finally out the door goes the old Gnostic God of Spirit, who’s around the world in some creepy mysterious way, but hates the place along with all unsanitised human beings. All that matters to him is Religion. Experience? Money? Work? Sexuality? Art? Science? He’s above all that. Jesus isn’t. He’s in the middle of it. Taking Jesus seriously involves laying aside the snooty assumption that the world is somehow beneath divine contempt. We may despise the world but Jesus’ two bouts of helplessness say the living God so loved it that he gave everything for it…
Finally among unwanted visitors to the stable, tell that pervasive old English hypocrite Pelagius to go away. “Don’t you realise the world is going to hell in a handcart?” he whines. “Do something! Pull your socks up! Sing Louder! Get Christians ideologically aligned! Get us back to the good old days, when God was safely back in his heaven and all was well with the world…!”
The baby in the manger sleeps on. And nothing will ever be the same again.
Posted by Alan Wilson on Sunday, 25 December 2011
I’ve chosen to post these two articles; one from the ‘Church Times‘ and the other from the web-site of ‘Thinking Anglicans’ – respectively, by a priest and a bishop of the Church of England; each, in their own way, commending us to approach the Christmas Story in a new, and perhaps more startling, way.
The first is by Giles Fraser, the former Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, who challenged the church to listen to and engage with the Protesters who were encamped outside the cathedral. In the ensuing melee, Giles retired from his position at Saint Paul’s and is presently without an official stipendiary post in the Church.
The second article is by bishop Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, whose outspoken support of inclusivity in the Church has sometimes brought him into conflict with ‘mainstream’ conservatives.
Both of these English clerics are concerned with the reality of the Incarnational innovation that the Birth of Jesus signalled to his Jewish contemporaries. Both are questioning the dualistic heresy that seems to have ensnared some of the puritans in the Church to a more spiritualised understanding of God’s redemption than is consistent with the down–to-earth message of the Incarnation.
God did not stand apart from God’s creation. Rather, He entered into it – full-bloodedly – with the humanity of the Divine Word in the womb of Mary, the mother of Jesus. ‘God became a man, so that man might become God’ – may sound to the purists, blasphemous; but to those open to the scandal of the possibility, there is still hope of God’s redemption for all who look for it – en Christo.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand