From Infant to Child December 20. 2015
So, here we are, just five days before Christmas. You are all ready to observe the holiday I’m sure, to make it the best yet. You have done all of your Christmas shopping – right? – the tree is up and decorated with sparkly baubles, the lights are twinkling around every window, the inflatable Santa and sleigh are on your roof, the menu for Christmas dinner is planned, the pudding has been marinating in brandy for weeks, and everything is set for you to celebrate Christmas in the way that tradition demands. If only religion would keep out of it. Don’t you hate it when the church keeps sticking its nose in where it does to belong. Why, the church even tries to interfere with Christmas, when of course we know that what Christmas is really about is gluttony and consumerist excess.
I certainly don’t want to be a Bah Humbug and spoil your enjoyment of Christmas, because I certainly plan to eat too much on Friday as well. I plan to indulge the Christmas spirit, whisky being my spirit of choice. I’m reminded of the old joke about the preacher who one Christmas was given a bottle of cherry brandy by a parishioner. He wanted to acknowledge the gift from the pulpit, but did not know how to do so discreetly, given that many of his flock were strictly and censoriously teetotal. So, the following Sunday he announced “I want to thank the anonymous donor for their kind gift of fruit, and most especially for the spirit in which it was given.”
When we gather on Thursday for our Christmas Eve Carol Service – 5.00pm, I hope to see you there – we will re-tell the stories of the birth of Jesus as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and we will sing some much loved carols. We will park to one side whatever theological reservations we might have about those stories and we will surrender ourselves to the mythic beauty of the season because Christmas is a time for the wisdom of wonder, it is a time for the magic of myth. After all, we supposedly rationalist Unitarians are responsible for half of the Christmas traditions we enjoy today. From the Christmas tree itself, introduced to this country by Charles Follen, to Jingle Bells to T’was the Night Before Christmas, to several favorite carols, to Charles Dickens’ novella Christmas Carol. It was Unitarians who made it legal even to celebrate Christmas in Puritanical New England. If anyone has a right to Christmas, it is us!
But this morning, I want us to ponder a little on Christian history and theology and how they have affected the evolution of Christmas as we know it. And in doing so, I acknowledge my intellectual debt to Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar and perhaps the most powerful and persuasive voice of progressive christianity in the United Kingdom today, and an essay he wrote eight years ago. And who, by the way, resigned as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, no less, in protest at the cathedral’s siding with the financial institutions rather than with those who were camping on its front steps during the Occupy Movement of a few years ago.
Consider this. Sunday by Sunday for centuries, the Christian faithful have recited the Nicene Creed which states, in part, “Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures.”
The Nicene Creed is the official summary of the Christian faith, but did you notice something? Astonishingly, it leaps straight from the birth of Jesus to his death. It has absolutely nothing to say about who Jesus was as an adult, nothing about what he did or preached or stood for. Nicene Christianity is all about Christmas and Easter, it is the celebration of a Jesus who is either a helpless infant or being killed, in either case, a Jesus who is not a threat to the political status quo. It ignores entirely Jesus’ revolutionary rhetoric. The adult Jesus who required of his followers that they renounce wealth, renounce power, renounce violence, renounce nationalism, that Jesus who was so problematic is passed over entirely. Instead we get the innocent baby or the dying victim.
As such, Nicene Christianity has been easily co-opted into the religion of corporate complacency and political convenience. We are invited to worship a supposed savior who has nothing to say about how we spend our money or whether we go to war, how we treat the stranger or how we organize our political priorities.
It was Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 312. According to the story, he was converted to Christianity by a vision on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge. The story says he saw “up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said “By this sign, conquer”. It was after his conversion, in 325 and wanting to bring his often unruly empire under tighter control, that he ordered all the bishops to gather at Nicaea to come up with a unifying creed, a creed which would back pedal on the revolutionary words of Jesus, a creed which would be about belief in a supernatural being rather than a political revolutionary. It was Constantine who decided that December 25 should be the date on which Jesus’ birth would be celebrated, co-opting the pagan solstice festivals, it was Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The early Christians knew nothing of Christmas. It was a festival invented by Roman Emperor Constantine, and from him on to the present day, the radical Christ has been neutered by the church, has been pushed to the margins, to be replaced by the much more accommodating religion of the mewling baby and a man dying.
But really, how can you read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus, accounts written perhaps some eighty or ninety years after the events they portray and long before Constantine came along, and not find a revolutionary message? The pregnant Mary anticipates the birth of her child with some fiery political rhetoric of her own. God, she storms “hath brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”.
Jesus is born among uneducated laborers, yet worshipped by kings. This is a remarkable reversal of political and economic authority. No wonder when he gets wind of it, the imperial stooge, Herod, orders his soldiers into Bethlehem to find the child and kill him. He knew that to claim Jesus is Lord means that Caesar isn’t. The birth of Jesus is not some sweet little kindergarten tableau, it is the start of the revolution threatening to undermine or overthrow the whole Roman Empire. What better way for Constantine to defeat that threat than by infantilising it?
Less than a century after Constantine, Augustine articulated the doctrine of the Just War. Thus the original uncompromising pacifist message of Jesus was further co-opted in the imperial war machine.
That infantilizing and co-opting of Jesus the adult, the revolutionary, the critic of power and privilege, the pacifist, continues to this day. Mainstream conservative Christian theologians and preachers, and their political puppets, continue the Constantine corruption, they are the new Rome, concerned only for the safeguarding of their imperial power. They offer a carefully edited version of the Bible. They emasculate the Jesus which does not suit their imperialist ambitions. The religion that said, unequivocally, to turn the other cheek is pressed into military service. The religion that said, love your enemies, welcome the stranger, be generous to and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the outcast and the sick, is now the religion whose loudest voices exhort, Let’s bomb our enemies, let’s turn back the stranger from our shores, build walls to keep them out, let’s cut welfare, abandon those who are sick but can’t afford health insurance, imprison and demonize any who do not conform to our image, who are not narrowly us.
And so it is that across this nation and others, without a trace of irony, at this season shall be sung carols celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace while all the while war is waged in the battle-fields of political and commercial self-interest.
As the words of the carol we sang two weeks ago remind us: “And we who fight the wars hear not the love song which they bring. O hush the noise of battle strife, and hear the angels sing.”