With young children and plenty of stuff to do, I often find the church calendar an anchor when I feel I have none. The seasons and festivals have rhythm that moves apart from me, yet allows any of us to move in and out, welcome sojourners. Having just celebrated the first Sunday of Advent, we turn to the difficulty of Christmas. Bookended by the worst excesses of Black Friday in the United States (corporations are trying here in Aotearoa New Zealand, but with little real success so far) and the grim joylessness of Boxing Day sales, the mewling baby Jesus seems incongruous besides Coca Cola’s crowning achievement, the red, white and obese Santa. Who is this child in a modern world of religious and economic war?
Jesus of Nazareth was from a backwater in first century Palestine. We don’t know all that much about his life until the narratives of his three years of mission in the gospels. In those three years, he chose to mission to the excluded and the despised of the Roman and Jewish societies: the working poor like fishermen; revolutionaries like Simon the Zealot; tax collectors like Zaccheus; lepers; the blind; Samaritans; women.
He was criticised by the establishment who accused him (accurately) of eating with sinners and tax collectors (cf. Matthew 9 and Mark 2) and not upholding Mosaic Law (cf. Matthew 15 and Mark 7). In response to criticism Jesus’ response tended to be silence or to speak in clever and probably satirical parables.
When Jesus entered into a town, a city, and peoples’ houses, he sought out and encountered the persecuted and despised:
- Matthew 8: a centurion, a symbol of the occupiers’ power;
- Matthew 9: blind men;
- Mark 3: a man with a withered hand;
- Mark 5: a dead girl;
- Luke: Simon’s feverish mother-in-law;
- Luke 7: a prostitute;
- Luke 8: a man possessed by demons;
- Luke 9: a village of Samaritans;
- Luke 17: ten lepers.
Whenever he entered into centres of power, he caused offense and anger:
- Matthew 12: eating the bread of the Presence in the house of God;
- Matthew 21: driving out the dove sellers and money changers in the temple;
- Mark 1: the synagogue to teach from Isaiah;
- Mark 3: healing on the Sabbath in the synagogue.
With due deference to my friends who are men and women of the cloth, Jesus seems more like the homeless guy our elderly parishioners are kind to at the back of the church, than the minister. And this Jesus would have no idea what we are doing in our church services; he was a first century Jew and would see little to orient himself within the confines of our houses of worship. And I’m not sure we would quite know what to do with Jesus if He turned up. The church, throughout its 2,000 year history, has struggled to follow the example of the man who allied himself with the powerless. Time and again the church has chosen to ally itself with power, and in certain eras has represented power itself.
His birth is an event of wonder. Mary was a young mother, Joseph was a young man, embarrassed at not being the father, both of them trying to follow the madness of words spoken to them out of the light. The shepherds, the learned men from a foreign country, the animal shelter, are a poor court. I imagine the gold gift offered was sold off to keep their small impoverished family afloat in Egypt. Frankincense and myrrh are probably the sum total of the available health care for a woman who has just given birth and her child. A little family followed by the screams of other mothers whose babies are murdered at the order of an addled despot.
No surprise then that His whole life, Jesus sought out His people: people whose lives were marked by poverty, rejection and trauma. So a Jesus who found Himself in our modern world would be unlikely to slot into our churches of the comfortable. What tears of discomfort and rejection have we to offer? Would we say we are frightened of aging congregations? That we are concerned that promiscuity and worldliness are leading our young people to have sex? That LGBTQI communities are trying to change the definition of marriage? Oh faithless Bride of Christ, what have you to offer Your Lord upon His return?
But we need not fear. He would not disturb us in our Laodicean slumber; He would be elsewhere. The Jesus born that Christmas 2,000 years ago might well choose to be at worship with our misunderstood and distrusted Muslim brothers and sisters. He could be in a graveyard with Jewish families scrubbing another swastika off of a tombstone. Perhaps he’s attend the wedding feast of two men declaring their love for each other. He might be shaking with fear holding children on a bed whilst their father beats their mother for mentioning their poverty. Or maybe he’d wake up under a bridge and line up with his friends at the soup kitchen for their Christmas meal.
One of our tendencies is to domesticate our gods. Keep them in temples, in shrines, hung on a wall or sitting atop a Christmas tree. We want to ensure they are accessible and malleable, to bless us in our every day and protect us from the Other down the road. This Christmas, why not go and find the Christ who is free? Go to your local mosque on a Friday and ask if you can join them in worship, go and pick up the rubbish and put flowers on the graves of people you don’t know, share your kai with your neighbours, write letters to prisoners, take gifts and helping hands to soup kitchens and halls. And then go to church with Jesus, who will only be too happy to join a friend for the service.