Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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in which kevin rediscovers the meaning of christmas

Goodbye, Jesus the neutral human Healer! You were level 30 when you died on the Plane of Earth.
But wait! The Shroud of Turin begins to glow!

Last weekend I went to a holiday party at the Silent Barn, a DIY art space on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. It was nuts. Over ten Christmas-themed bands played on five different stages, dressed as drunken Santas and 1920s orphans and sexy reindeer. There was a rainbow parachute, like the kind you run under in kindergarten, which served as an impromptu mosh pit as movie projectors flashed clips from Christmas TV specials across the side. There was a trio of elf girls shouting in a punk rock monotone about how badly they wanted to fuck Santa Claus. There was a tree on wheels, its lights flashing and oscillating to the music as college kids leapt onto it and slam-danced it across the room. There was a band that opened with the frontman exploding out of a strobe-lit Frosty the Snowman ornament, under which he had been hidden since the beginning of the show. Near the end a freestyling Santa Claus reached into a black trash bag and hurled plush monkeys and Thai calendars into the crowd. At the finale of his act he tore off the top of his costume to reveal a T-shirt emblazoned with the word GOD.

That was secular Christmas.

Yesterday I went to church. Because, you know. Under all the consumerism and the TV holiday special sentiment and the pagan tree rituals, Christmas is still an actual Christian religious holiday. An important one, no less. Even if the event it celebrates is a couple months off the mark, and largely obscured by a potpourri of secular traditions, it's still an occasion to reflect on the human birth of God. Not, as we do on every other Sunday of the year, on his life and works, or his miracles, or the gruesome sacrifice of his death, and the legacy of all that entails--but on the simple moment of his being born, just a little baby in the arms of his mother, unknown to anyone but his parents and a trio of shepherds as the son of God. It is the one day a year we dwell upon the humanity of God--the strange irony of the omnipresent creator of the universe being brought into the world as a mewling, helpless human infant, and what that entails in regards to his understanding of the human experience.

And what a birth! Western European religious tradition so romanticizes the event of the Nativity that we all too often forget how ignoble it was. We, the children of the automobile era, can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that a manger is some warm, comfortable bed of clean plastic straw, atop which a Renaissance noblewoman in courtly garb can comfortably swaddle an infant prince. No. A manger is a stall where horses sleep. Have you seen a manger? It is warm, smelly, and buzzing with flies and horseshit, more akin to a public restroom stall than a mattress in a parking lot. Bear in mind that Joseph and Mary were sleeping there only because there was no room at the inn, and there was absolutely nowhere else they could go. For Mary to unexpectedly go into labor in such a place must have seemed like a terrible end to an already miserable night, and a wretched beginning for an emerging human life.

The gospels don't elaborate on Joseph and Mary's feelings on the Nativity, but I imagine that by then they must have developed an appreciation for God's cruel sense of humor. First Mary gets pregnant outside of wedlock, then an angel tells them the child is the son of God and urges them to leave their home and flee to Egypt, then Mary goes into labor before they get anywhere near the border. In a manger, no less, on a night they can't find a room. You'd think God would at least pull some favors to have his son born in a nice, comfortable bedroom--or at least delay the birth for a couple of hours so Mary could give birth in the privacy of a tent, without giving three random strangers the opportunity to barge in. But no. For all God's reputation as a giver of blessings and small fortunes, God afforded them none.

This must have been baffling to the beleaguered young couple. What kind of father, I imagine they must have thought, would willingly put his own son through so much? Emperors of Rome were born to cheering crowds and elaborate priestly ceremonies, in order to emphasize their importance. What grand entrance was this for the prince of peace, who, according to the angel who warned Mary, would inherit "the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever"? God parted the sea for Moses, but he allowed his own son to be born among sleeping horses and buzzing flies.

Kiowa died in a field of shit, and Jesus was born in horse vomit.

And yet. The new star that rose in the east, attracting the attention of the Magi--tradition held that a new star had similarly heralded the birth of Julius Caesar. And the shepherds! In my pastor Herb Miller's sermon yesterday, in which he focused on the subversiveness of the Nativity tale to an early Roman audience, Rev. Miller noted that shepherds, far from their romantic image among the Western scholarly elite in the 1800s, were pretty close to the bottom of New Testament-era Israel's class hierarchy. They owned little property, being nomads, their line of work forbade them from cleaning often enough to achieve the ritual purity to participate in religious life at the Temple, and the work itself was dull, poorly respected, and earned little money. The first witnesses to the birth of the Christ, Miller noted, were not the Roman emperor, the Roman-appointed Jewish king, any of the clergy in the Temple, or even the Magi who came by later bearing gifts, but a bunch of random guys doing late night guard duty in the desert. It must have seemed to Roman citizens of that era that the gospel tale was nothing more than a sick parody of the tale of the divine emperor's birth, a crass, blasphemous nose-thumbing challenge to a powerful and literally sacred institution. The modern analogy--to take the iteration one step further to its logical conclusion--would be three homeless guys, dressed in priestly vestments made from garbage bags, baptizing a baby with a plastic bucket of Old English, because some angel supposedly told them that he'd grow up to be president of the United States. Sacrilege! Insanity!

I guess it isn't hard to understand why, at the end of Jesus's mortal life, the centurions erected a sign at the foot of the cross, written in three languages, reading "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The implication: Look at this guy. Look at this bleeding illegal immigrant carpenter, who dared to insult the local religion and foment civil unrest, and is now hanging, naked, from a wooden frame from nails staked through his wrists, like all the other enemies of the state brought to justice at Golgotha. His last words, depending on who you ask, were either "It is finished" or "Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani." Does he look like a king to you?

What does this say about what God thinks of our attitudes towards human privilege?

It is incredibly significant that the mortal life of Christ is bookended by disgrace. For all the whitewashing and Sunday school oversimplification and creative interpretation the retelling has undergone over the past two thousand years, the fact remains that Jesus Christ, son of God, Messiah and redeemer of humanity, was born in a horse stall and died on a cross. The medieval stained-glass depiction of him as a king of kings in the image of kings, however reverent, is a bald-faced lie. No halos or golden crowns for this guy. The prince of peace, heir to the throne at the right hand of God, even as he was followed by thousands (who he kept trying to sneak away from), never enjoyed a moment of royalty. God could have given it to him, from the beginning--he could have been a king, like David, or a respected sage to power, like Samuel, or a mighty conqueror, like Samson, or simply accepted Satan's offer to be ruler of all the world. No. God, in his human incarnation, even with all his knowledge of the divine and all his miraculous powers, wanted to be just some guy. And not just some guy, but some schmuck. A lowly carpenter, who did not begin his ministry until he was in his thirties (close to the end of the typical lifespan of that era). Born a pauper, lived a migrant worker, died a criminal--even at the height of his ministry, he refused any political power from his followers. Far from the role model of political leadership Christians have made him out to be for centuries, he was a king in name only. In his Name only.

Gloria, in excelsis deo. So goes the carol. Glory to God in the highest. In his own mortal life, there was none.

This is a dumbfounding revelation if you consider the many centuries of Western divine right and royalty claimed in his name, to the point where the victims of Christian empire have accused Christianity of being the worship of the status quo. That's depressing, if you consider that all Jesus spent most of his life in disobedience of the status quo. If God walked the earth as a nobody to demonstrate the irrelevance of even the mighty Roman Empire in the grand scheme of the divine, isn't it ironic, then, that we've founded all of its successors in his name. We have built dominions spanning oceans for the sake of spreading the teachings of an anti-imperial insurgent, quashed cults to preserve the influence of a cultist, ravaged socialist countries for the freedom to practice a religion that preaches a primitive form of socialism. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"? Tell that to the preachers of the prosperity gospel; they'd throw a fit.

One nation, under God--or in spite of?

It's funny how far the church--and by this I mean the lowercase-c catholic church, the body of all of Christ's worshippers--diverged from that particular lesson of Christ's life so quickly. Unlike some left-leaning Christians, I'm not terribly upset about the Nicene Creed, which created a standard Christian orthodoxy, or Emperor Constantine I's conversion and subsequent edict of religious toleration, the Edict of Milan. (Side note: According to tradition Constantine converted when, just before a decisive battle, the sign of the cross appeared to him in the sky and he heard a booming voice exclaiming, "By this, prevail!" Think about it. An angel telling a Roman emperor to prevail by the sign of a cross. It says a lot about Constantine's ego that he saw it and thought, "Wow! The will of Christ is on my side!" and not, "Oh, hey, look at this torture device my people invented. A foreign god I killed with it is now telling me that this will be my weapon of choice. Huh." ) What I am upset about is Emperor Theodosius I's Edict of Thessalonica, enacted in AD 380, in which, just fifty years later, Theodosius made orthodox Christianity the only state religion. This began the spate of propaganda war, schism, religious violence, book-burning, rioting, looting, persecution, inquisition, and temple and church burning that has more or less characterized Christendom up to today.

Two thousand and ten years of the Christian tradition and one guy managed to fuck it up irrecoverably in less than four hundred years. Way to go, Theodosius! Way to turn an anti-imperial religion into the imperial religion. The imperial religion, which now and forever will be associated with empire, despite its fundamental teachings of humility.

But I digress. This song, "One of Us," written by Eric Zavilian and famously covered by Joan Osborne in the mid-nineties, both entirely misses and gets the point. There's no intended irony to it, as the music video (which features a parade of strikingly human non-Christian, non-white Coney Islanders, as far from traditional Western perceptions of beauty as humanly possible) and various Zavilian interviews make clear. Zavilian really does seem to see the divine as preached by the Christian tradition, in its omnipotence and its associations with privilege, as aloof from the simple humanity of everyday people. He sees the world of popes and platitudes and divine perfection and stupid evangelical metaphors ("God's coming on his heavenly airplane!") as utterly irrelevant to the loneliness of being just another face in the crowd, just a slob, a stranger on a bus, a lonely wanderer with little control over his own destiny, so far from the divine that if he could ever get close enough to ask just one question, he wouldn't know what to say. Which demonstrates either an utter unfamiliarity with the Gospels or a nudge-nudge-wink-wink understanding of it, because that's precisely the experience that God, by coming to earth in human form and walking for forty years in our shoes, came to understand.

This experience is one of the fundamental splits between Judaism and Christianity. The God of the Old Testament, and in the Talmudic aggada more so, is an alien, terrifying, primeval force--one that humanity constantly has to explain itself to, and negotiate with, and have rules made by, because the omnipotent and omniscient divine occasionally has to be reminded that we can't just be perfect like he is. (An amusing recurring theme in the Old Testament is God having to change the parameters of the laws of creation simply because we're not smart or morally upright enough to just do what he means.)

But in the New Testament, God goes out and actively solves that problem. He belittles himself to be a human being--retaining some of his divine abilities, but constantly pushing the limitations of his human body too hard, forcing him to rest and be overwhelmed and face frequent frustration and disgust--and consequently experiences humanity in all its awful, beautiful, happy, sad, poignant glory. God doesn't make his identity publicly known (at least at first) or use his status as the divine host to demand special treatment (except once, in jest, to a certain Syrophonecian woman). He does the humanity thing hardcore, from an incredibly humble beginning right down to a brutal and dehumanizing death. In a bizarre pastiche of animal sacrifice, he even goes as far as taking upon himself the staggering entirety of the suffering of human sin, just in case the tribulations of one mortal life weren't enough, implying he will never make a judgment upon man that he himself will not suffer.

You can accuse God of a great many things, but if you're Christian, one thing you can never sincerely claim is that he doesn't know how you feel. Because he's been there, right there with you. You never have to explain yourself to God. He already knows, first hand.

The entirety of the Gospel--if I had to make the error of trying to sum it up in one pithy statement--is that God was, indeed, one of us. If only for a while. For forty years he ate, slept, laughed, cried, rejoiced, and suffered among us. He taught, he learned (even in his omniscience), he worked and lived off the fruits of his work, he experienced politics as a subject as well as a ruler, he went through birth and puberty and adulthood and death. He witnessed all manner of lifelong infirmities (and in a compassionate fit of rule-breaking, fixed them). He studied at the temple, and lived under the laws he had created, and prayed, and even experienced crises of faith. He was the Messiah, son of God, but he was also Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter. He had a simple message to deliver his people--the Kingdom is coming! Be prepared!--but so distracted was he by the need for his compassion, and the humanity he learned from the people around him, that he never got around to explaining the fine details of what it meant. His life, and the way he chose to live, became a message in itself.

This is what we celebrate on Christmas. This is why, on Advent, a lay leader at my church began the announcement of a new parenting group with, "For the Josephs and Marys in our congregation..." We celebrate when God, in the flesh for a brief forty years of his timeless existence, was right there with us, just a stranger on that bus, trying to make his way home. And, for a silent few millenia, how his Spirit is with us still.

There's a tradition, well known among some Christians but obscure to others, of candle-lighting at the end of the Christmas service, for which each worshipper in the congregation is given an unlit candle. The lights are dimmed, a prayer is said, and a single candle on the altar is lit. As we sing a gentle carol, lay volunteers remove the candle from the altar and use it to light the candles of the congregants in the front row. The congregants then use their candles to light the candles of the other congregants around them, who in turn light the candles of congregants around them, and by the moment the last note quiets the cold December night is pierced by a carpet of light and warmth. When the service ends, the lights come back on and the flames wink out as congregants extinguish them. But the Christ-flame continues to burn, even after eventually being snuffed by the ritual vise--an undying, afterimage-like single ember.
Tags: christianity

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  • the power of hymn

    Those of you who know me well know I don't often sing hymns outside of church. When I do, it's usually in times of great joy, fear, epiphany, or…

  • jesus the christ has a posse

    From their ideology, you'd think Christian anarchists were a bunch of delusionally idealistic, paranoid, hypocritical, theocratic, close-minded,…

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