Monday, January 04, 2010

The messy truth of Christmas

As we near the end of the liturgical Christmas season, here is one of the finest theological essays I have come across in a long time. Writing in the Guardian, Anglican priest Giles Fraser reminds us why “the word made flesh” was so radical and offensive two millennia ago and still is today. The daily stress of our lives causes all of us at times to wish for a fantasy land of ponies and rainbows and margaritas. The stunning, and not entirely welcome, message of Christmas is that, rather than taking us to such a place, God instead has come to dwell with us. In Jesus God has “pitched his tent” (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word) among us, in the crazy mix of mess and beauty that is the real world in which we live.

For that reason, Fraser says, the problem is not that Christmas has become too materialistic but that it isn’t materialistic enough. Its antagonist is kitsch, the view of life that clears away all the dirt and pain for soft light and warm fuzzies. The kitsch Jesus is like that of the Gnostic Valentinius who “ate and drank but did not defecate.” But this is not the Jesus of the Bible, either of Christmas or of Calvary.

"From the perspective of official Christian doctrine, the story of Christmas is a full-scale attack upon the notion of kitsch. Valentinius's theology is declared heretical precisely because it denies the full reality of the incarnation. For Valentinius, Jesus only seemed human. "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see", as the equally heretical carol puts it. Orthodoxy turns out to be vastly more radical, not because it provides a way of squaring the circle of a God-man, but because it refuses to separate the divine from material reality. God is born in a stable. The divine is re-imagined, not as existing in some pristine isolation, but among the shittiness of the world."

And that is the bottom line: “the divine is re-imagined.” Read the whole piece. For me it falls in the category of “a sermon I wish I had preached.” Merry Christmas!

Note: For a related earlier post see Is it art or is it Thomas Kinkade?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Doug. This kind of realism is one of the only things keeping me connected to the church right now, and it is too, too rare. Let us always remember that Jesus not only pooped in his swaddling rags, but that Mary and Joseph might have appreciated the magi's gifts of frankincense and myrrh more than the gold, as they could be used immediately to cover up the stink of their surroundings!


Anonymous said...

I have to admit I was struck by Fraser's comment on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Okay, I'm not a Methodist, but I didn't think John Wesley was a heretic! I thought maybe his original text had been changed by some well-meaning goof, until I looked it up. Indeed, much of the text has been messed with, but "veiled in flesh" is there in the original.

I get what Fraser means -- "veiled" suggests that Jesus' true nature is hidden from us, that he is only putting on flesh and not really made of flesh. But the following lines don't continue the fallacy -- he is the "incarnate deity" and appears "as man with men."

Do you think that one (perhaps poor) word choice renders the whole carol heretical? Would it be any better to change "veiled" to "clothed" or not? Does it really matter?


P.S. I don't have any particular interest in rescuing this song from the accusation of heresy. It's not one of my favorites, though I have always enjoyed it for its sheer familiarity. But this gives it an interesting new twist!