Christianity is a faith with rough edges. Would we know it, however, from conventional Christian celebrations of Christmas? Perhaps no other festival of the church has become so successful in blunting the gospel’s rough edges.
There is a certain irony in the controversy which often erupts at this time of the year when calls are made to ban nativity plays in schools. Perhaps it should be the Churches leading the way in a moratorium on nativity plays. Not, however, because of cultural sensitivities, but in the hope of subverting one of the most resilient remnants of Christendom’s folk piety.
How might an authentic celebration of Christmas reveal the gospel’s rough edges? A full engagement with the infancy narratives of Matthew would be one place to start (would it be worth swapping the lectionary readings for Christmas Day and Christmas 1?).
A scandalising pregnancy; a murderous king who unleashes his worst on the least; a confused young couple who flee for their lives and that of their newborn; foreign visitors who are forced to hide their tracks. The announcement of ‘Emmanuel’ is surrounded by confusion, fear, anxiety and even outright evil.
In that respect the birth and infancy narratives of Matthew contain the same unsettling mix of responses to Jesus’ later ministry which we find in all the gospels. His polarising impact at birth persists to the very end. Herod the Great was hardly the last to take offence at him.
So many of our ecclesiastical traditions and pious inclinations resist this gospel presentation of Jesus. We have been deeply enculturated to expect to find a more comforting and reassuring Jesus.
We are puzzled, for example, by the fact that the crowd at Nazareth would want to throw him off the local cliff so soon after he’d set out such a fine manifesto for social justice. And, surely he could have been just a bit more polite to the assembled congregation (Luke 4:16-30).
We are confused, for example, by the fact that Jesus has to be cajoled into responding to the Syrophoenecian woman (Mark 7:24-30; Matt 15:21-28). We don’t look to people who behave like that to be our pastors.
The Jesus of the gospels is a strange figure. We don’t have to peel back behind the gospels and look to the ‘historical Jesus’ for the story that unsettles our pieties. It is right there in the gospel narratives themselves. His is a story with rough edges.
In their own way, the gospels’ respective narrations of Jesus’ life and ministry are unsettling. Read as the narratives they are, read with ears open to the theological imaginations of the authors, they are opening up new, even subversive, understandings of God, salvation, community and hope. It is not the gospel writers who domesticated Jesus; it is we who have domesticated the gospels.
Should we admit this strangeness on Christmas Day? Can we say to those who come to our churches for that annual or occasional visit: “You might not find what you are looking for”?
Are we obliged to remember on Christmas Day that Jesus grew up? And that the chaos and controversy Matthew associated with his birth never really abated? Are we constrained to recall that his teachings, healings, suffering and resurrection caused people to re-think their lives, the world, and God from the ground up? Could exposure to the Christmas story be an occasion to start that re-thinking?
There is no reason to mute the Christmas announcement of ‘peace on earth’, or its proclamation of ‘Emmanuel’. But the meaning of those claims is given only with the whole story of Jesus. Detached from that full story, they are completely exposed to being sentimentalised and domesticated.
We are, I believe, privileged to live at a time when many of the gods and pieties of Christendom are slowly dying. In this context perhaps few come to church on Christmas Day with much expectation at all. And perhaps that is exactly the context where the adult Jesus can be re-introduced.
His own embodied invitation to re-imagine God, salvation, community and hope might be begin to be heard as interesting, even restorative and redemptive.
When Paul was taken to the Areopagus the philosophers asked him to explain his new teaching: “It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means” (Acts 17:20). Perhaps we should hesitate to obscure the strangeness of Jesus – even on Christmas Day. There just might be some who want to know what it means.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Centre for Theology and Ministry