Thursday, June 20, 2013

The trouble with Baby Jesus

I got provoked today.  It was probably inevitable after a couple of travel days for two different required meetings, with the inevitable fatigue that was to follow.  Anyway, the provocation can be found within this column, which also provides an appropriately tart response.  (You should go look at it now, or else this post won't make any sense, since I aim to keep it short and go to bed.  I'll be here when you get back, I promise.)

As if somehow Jesus needs our protection.  Sheesh.

I get baffled at this.  Exactly how is it that Christ is damaged if someone fails to say "Merry Christmas" at that time of year, or if a contest devoted to repeated acts of violence and mental maiming, i.e. a football game, is not inaugurated with a prayer?  Do you really think even the most virulent Christ-hater one could imagine could do anything more harmful than pee his or her pants if confronted with Christ In All His Glory?

And if this is all a cover for a few self-described Christians of a particular stripe to nurse grudges over their own hurt feelings, I am not sure a charge of blasphemy is not warranted against them.

I'm beginning to wonder if the problem is one of exactly which Christ is being "worshipped" in these cases.

There are some strains of the church where only a few images or portrayals of Christ are really in play in that tradition at any given time.  Let's face it, we're never going to comprehend Christ In All His Mystery at any point this side of the bar, but sometimes churches or denominations or particular traditions embrace an even more limited array of options for acknowledging who Jesus was and is.  The butt-kicking warrior-ish Second Coming Christ gets a lot of play in some traditions, for example.  The Gloriously Risen Christ is always good around Easter.  The Crucified Christ...well, the God-talk is always good for a few "Christ died for your sins" iterations, but sometimes one gets the impression that some segments of the church are kind of ashamed of the Savior on the Cross.  (Or maybe it's just that the megachurches get so backed up at Easter that they're already having Easter services on Good Friday.)

And of course Baby Jesus rules from sometime in November through December 25 or so.

And I wonder if the problem is that in many cases, Baby Jesus is never allowed to grow up.

Think about it.  Favorite Christmas carols tend to be full of images of the child, images of a particularly romanticized sort.  I've sort of mocked the "Away in a manger" line in which "Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes" before.  The child is sleeping, the child is sweet, the child is tender, the child is gentle, so on and so on.  (Martin Luther tried to do better in the chorale Von Himmel Hoch, but how often do you sing that around Christmas?  Put your hands down, Lutherans.)  We spend a good solid month or more drilling that image into our heads.  OF COURSE it's going to linger subconsciously in our minds. That little baby boy needs our protection!!!

OK, maybe that cheap bit of psychoanalysis was over the top.  But I do suspect that a large swath of the Christian population is not really progressed beyond Baby Jesus in their conception of the Savior Of All Humanity.  It's not hard to see that many are distinctly uncomfortable with The Jesus Between Manger and Cross.  You know, the one who hung out with smelly poor people and degenerate tax collectors and ne'er-do-well fishermen, the one who touched sick people, the one who gave away food to crowds that probably didn't deserve it...or even the one who said really uncomfortable things like "love your enemies, bless those that curse you..." or "the gate is wide, that leads to eternal destruction, and many are they that find it," or other such unpleasant thoughts.

And, to flog another horse that I've flogged before, a properly observed Advent would go a long way towards correcting this seeming hangup in corners of the modern church.  Four weeks of prophets and pictures of what God's world really ought to look like might just help avert some of that infantilization of Jesus that seems to linger in some minds.  But of course, for so many churches, Advent is a one-week lip-service thing before we're off on that round of sentimentalized Christmas carols for the whole month of December, and as any musician can tell you, folks are going to remember the hymns a lot more than they remember even your best sermons.

So here we sit, in a country where a substantial chunk of those who are loudest about calling themselves Christians are somehow convinced that either Jesus will be destroyed if people don't say "Merry Christmas" x  number of times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or that their wounded pride and their shame at no longer dominating the culture is an excuse to engage in political manipulation and exploitation of Christ to score cheap points on their enemies, which I'm pretty sure is blasphemy.  And more people end up hungry and homeless in the bargain, and this gets called God's work.  And Jesus, the Jesus Who Is All Of Those Things And A Whole Lot More, weeps.

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