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Saturday, 3 January 2009

Ekklesia on Christmas

Delayed reference to a couple of columns on Christmas from Ekklesia. Links to the full columns. Always worth a read.

Simon Barrow on "Rescuing God from our attempts at Belief"
The God who is portrayed in the Gospel stories about the birth of Jesus is indeed a stranger to dominant ideas about divinity ...

When human beings go about making gods to worship, they are able to do so only as projections of their own image. This is particularly true of the infantilising cosmic tyrant who haunts the imagination of those who would use faith as a self-asserting weapon, and those (like Richard Dawkins) who see this kind of false deity as the be-all and end-all of God-talk.

The god of human imagining is, as someone once put it in my hearing, “a person like us, only much bigger and able to do anything at all.” In contrast to such fantasy, the God whose nature and purpose is disclosed in the flesh of Jesus is neither a metaphysical proposition, nor a cosmic being nor an unassailable entity. God is, rather, unconditioned and unconditional love – a reality beyond definition, description and specification, but revealed in the truth of self-giving.

As recent tragic events in Britain have confirmed, a small child is dependent and defenceless. The story of Jesus is of a birth into obscurity at the edge of Empire in debatable circumstances and of dubious parentage.

Moreover, this child grows up to become someone who defies the attempts of religious and political authorities to capture God for their own purposes. For them, unbounded grace and healing for the ‘impure’ is too much to bear. He is subjected to a criminal’s death and his vindication is not by might but by the gift of life beyond captivity.

There is no way that this picture of God can ever ‘fit’ in with our conventional expectations, religious or otherwise. The god of human construction operates through inviolable fiats, inerrant texts, incomprehensible commands and unquestionable ....

We are faced with a ...God beyond all our concepts of ‘god-ness’, being found not as an alien intruder, a competitor or a member of a class of things called ‘gods’, but as unfathomable life encountered in and through our vulnerability – not over and against it.

When we get to the heart of the Christmas story we find ourselves challenged to become more, not less human. We are asked to stop treating each other, and God, as ‘objects’ to be contemplated, traded, argued about and disposed… but instead as “mysteries to be loved”...

Jonathan Bartley "Christmas means compassion not crusading"

... attempts to put Christ back into Christmas through conquest sit uneasily with the political message that lies at the heart of the Christmas story, which challenges those who would seek to dominate and control. According to St Luke's account of the nativity, it's a sentiment that Jesus' mother recognised particularly well.

There is a tendency to think of Mary as a victim – a slightly passive but worthy virgin, chosen to bear the god-child because she has wouldn't hurt a first-century fly. But Mary's response is not one of benign resignation. She celebrates. She bursts into song. And the song she sings is about an end to tyranny and oppression. She anticipates that the powerful will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away with nothing. The world will be turned upside down by the baby growing inside her.

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), as it came to be known, is a profoundly political song of subversion. But it is also entirely in keeping with the tone of the Christmas story. Oppressive Romans are seeking to extend their control and tax the Jewish population through a census. A despotic ruler sees Jesus as a potential threat, and commits a terrible atrocity in his desire to eliminate the risk. Jesus' family become asylum seekers and flee to Egypt. The baby has clearly come to cause trouble – and he subsequently does so for both the religious and political authorities of his day.

It's all a long way from the "Little Lord Jesus", so gentle, meek and mild, he doesn't cry in his manger bed. But Christmas was rebranded long before the existence of "politically correct" councils. In fact there isn't any record of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ celebrating Christmas at all. Following the fourth century conversion of Constantine, Jesus was embarrassing for a church now in bed with the same empire that had put him to death. It has suited both church and state, in assorted alignments for the next 1700 years, to have a romanticised and sentimentalised story, not a subversive one. Even the Magi (wise men) were made into "kings", rewriting history to create a close association with power, rather than a challenge to it.

Mary's song has far more in common with The Red Flag than We Three Kings. But if it makes uncomfortable reading for the Church keen to attract people with a warm, fuzzy message at the one time of year when church attendance seems to actually increase, it is equally challenging for governments.

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