Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The humanity of Christmas

There is a moment in Arianna Franklin's tense historical thriller The Serpent's Tale when the story pauses, the tension of murder and intrigue halted for, of all things, Christmas.  As usual, Franklin has done her research, and her depiction of the Angel Mass is rooted in the Twelfth Century.  In her prose, Franklin captures the immediacy of the memory of Christ's birth to the medieval world. She writes:

"There was a common and growing breathlessness as Mary labored in her stable a few yards away...
"...When the abbot, raising his arms. announced a deep throated 'The Child is born,' his exhortation to go in peace was lost in a great shout of congratulation, several of the women yelling advice on breast-feeding to the invisible but present Mary and prompting her to 'make sure and wrap that baby up warm now.'

"Bethlehem was here. It was now."

That image of a medieval mass, filled with what we, in our age of media and information, would consider "simple folk" might seem charmingly parochial and ignorant.  Yet hidden within it is a lesson worth learning, a truth that our compartmentalized and sterilized world has taken away from us as we celebrate the holiday season - the unflinching humanity of the Christmas story.

In our world of elegant nativities and Christmas cards, it is easy to relegate the event of Jesus' birth - the event that those who claim Christianity seek to honor - to a beautiful, clean story.  Certainly, some tellings emphasize the poverty and humility of the stable or the difficulty of the situation.  But rare indeed is the acknowledgement that Jesus was born in blood and pain, covered in the same bodily fluids as every other baby in history. He did not appear sweet and swaddled as he appears in the crèche on the table; the story of Christmas is the story of a birth with all its accompanying humanity.

Birth, in our age, is relegated to the cool, professional sterility of the hospital. Most  have never seen a baby born; birth, we are told, is a miracle, and its depictions in the media present us with clean, charming infants far beyond their own nativity.  Like so many other things in our world, "birth" is an idea, not a physical reality, so when we hear that Jesus was "born in a manger," our mental picture is of a serenely swaddled, immaculate infant on the front of a Hallmark card.

By accepting that image, those who believe in the Christmas story and the faith of which it is a part shortchange themselves and their beliefs.  Part of the great wonder of Christ's birth is that it represents God with us, an act of relationship building unrivaled in history.  Christianity is not merely a religious structure or a spiritual way of thinking; it is an active process of establishing and nurturing a relationship, the miracle of man seeking a rapport with God and discovering God is willing to engage in that connection. 

Looking at the birth of Christ in the way the "primitives" of Franklin's medieval Angel Mass do changes the pure ideological story of God sending Jesus to give a message into a messy, harsh, and unspeakably beautiful narrative of God's willingness to take an abstract and put it into harsh physical terms...all for the sake of forging a relationship in our unspeakably human terms.  That story of blood and pain, of breast feeding and diapers may not be pure and philosophically comfortable, but it is immediate and powerful in a way that we often forget.

The people of the Twelfth Century were indeed ignorant; they were superstitious and more often than not had neither access to nor interest in Christian doctrine and ideology.  We are indeed more sophisticated and erudite than those folk encouraging an imaginary Mary in a  stall, yet our sophistication may deny us the connection to the physical reality of Jesus' coming, and by extension the potential of the relationship that coming offers Christians - a God who chose to be incarnated in blood and pain, to live and laugh and sweat and rage, and to die in agony, all without regret or resentment for the sake of a relationship with us, His creation. 

To me, as a Christian, that is the greatest miracle of Christmas.  I love my crèche, and I cherish the greeting card images of the Little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.  But in my heart this Christmas Eve, I'll be calling encouragement to a Mary in a stable long, long ago and picturing a baby born in blood and amniotic fluid, not because it's comforting or attractive, but because it reminds me of the true wonder of Christmas for me...the wonder of a relationship between the glory of heaven and the grit of humanity.  That's something I need to remember, to pursue, and to cherish.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Selfish Demands: The Faith of a Child

I’ve never been one to put myself forward.  Part of that is just my nature, I always tend to be a little shy, a little too concerned with how I would feel if someone else did that to me, but part of that is training as well.  I spent many long years in children’s church and VBS singing countless choruses of “Jesus and Others and You, what a wonderful way to spell ‘JOY’.”  I learned those lessons well; I learned that in all things, including in faith, you put yourself last.

But then I realized something.  The realization came, as it so often does, from something I had read hundreds of times before.  It wasn’t something new or particularly amazing. I was reading one of the gospel stories of Jesus and the children.  If you’ve been in enough church services and children’s churches, you know the story well…”suffer the little children and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

I know the passage; I’ve heard sermon after sermon on it, most of them emphasizing the innocence of children and their open-hearted willingness to believe.  But there was something that every one of those sermons omitted – the fact that children are unabashedly, enthusiastically pushy and selfish about their relationships with the people they love.

In all fairness, that omission was hardly the fault of any pastor.  Since the Victorian era, we’ve idealized children.  They really are amazing – little potential people growing into functioning, contributing, independent adults. But in the midst of that amazement, we misrepresent them a bit. We style them as “cherubs,” little angels who represent all of the sweetness, innocence and simplicity that adulthood supposedly steals from us.

And if you believe that, you’ve never worked with children.

With all of their amazing qualities, children have a number of natural tendencies that we try to train out of them.  Among those is an unabashed selfishness, a desire to get what they want, and a willingness to do what it takes to get it…first.  Kids have a remarkable sense of focus when they want something or someone.  Try having a special guest or beloved relative come over to sit and visit for “adult time” while kids are home; good luck with that.

We work on teaching our children not to be that way.  We emphasize sharing, patience, and giving everyone a turn.  And that’s important behavior when we’re dealing with other people.  But Jesus says that doesn’t really apply with Him.  He warns his disciples “Don’t ever get between them and me.”  Jesus is God – omnipresent, all places and adequate for everyone.  He doesn’t want us to hang back and share – he expects us to have that same single-minded selfish desire to get to what we want that was trained out of us as children.  In talking to Him, he doesn’t want “Jesus and Others and You” – he wants us to shove those “Others” right out of there and just pay attention to the Jesus and You part.

Looking at Jesus's encouragement for us to “accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child” with all of the enthusiasm and selfish desire that entails also helps to explain a lot of other stories in the gospels that confused me as a child. Take, for example, the “persistent friend” in Luke 11, who asks for bread for a guest in the middle of the night…and keeps asking. Or the widow in Luke 18 who keeps annoying the judge for justice. As a child, those stories always seemed to fly in the face of everything I had been taught was “good behavior.”  If someone showed up unexpectedly, you coped; you did NOT go out in the middle of the night and annoy the crap out of your neighbors until they got out of bed and gave you food for your guest.  If you were treated unjustly by the world, you turned the other cheek and overcame the difficulty, becoming a better person in the process.  Those behaviors described by Jesus seemed terribly selfish and contrary to everything I had been taught was acceptable behavior.

Kid Superhero on Washing Machine
But that’s because I was missing the point.  All of those stories weren’t talking about how you were supposed to behave in relationships other people. They were about how you were to behave in a relationship with God – and in that relationship, you were to act like a child, a selfish, attention-hungry person who craved love and attention enough to demand it.  You were supposed to have blind faith that if you were loud enough, persistent enough, and passionate enough, you would get a response.  That doesn’t necessarily work with people when you’re over the age of 3, but with God, we are never over the age of 3.  In fact, He wants us to retain that passion, that utter conviction that we are important enough to bug the heck out of Him and demand His attention for our needs, our wants, and our shortcomings.

That’s a bit hard for me.  The idea of not asking for help, of not demanding attention, of not putting myself forward has been hardwired into me by too many years of training and disappointment.  I hesitate to pray too much, to bug God about little things that I can get by without. I always figure that there’s someone else with a bigger problem, and I need to make room for their issues in the God-attention lineup.

But I’m wrong.  God doesn’t have an attention line; His presence is infinite, and he disapproves of me hanging back and letting other people cut into the line in front of me.  That willingness to hang back is a reflection not only of a lack of confidence, but a loss of the selfish, innocent passion of childhood.  If I’m going to have the relationship with Jesus that He wants, I have to accept the kingdom of heaven as a child does.  I have to not only want Jesus’s attention, I have to selfishly, lavishly, and loudly demand it.  In our relationship, that’s not bad behavior – that’s coming Home to the one being that doesn’t mind me being demanding…He commands it.