DANGER WRAPPED IN SWADDLING CLOTHES
by Ted Schmidt
"We have not captured the meaning of biblical words in our present day sermons and lectures until it as dangerous in our situation to speak them as it was for the original biblical spokesman."
All over the Christian world families will gather this year at that most precious time, Christmas. It seems not to matter to most in the secular world that Christmas has lost much of its religious meaning. It is still that period of deep emotional connection when adults, no matter what their station or occupation in life, happily conjure up deep-felt memories of warmth, acceptance and love. Inevitably we recall the falling snow, the decorations on the tree, the aroma of turkey and the sound of Christmas carols. Christians often conjure the warm memory of midnight mass in a church festooned with branches of fir and cedar, and the whole assembly singing Silent Night.
All over this frozen land ordinary people make a beeline for a hearth of some kind, a welcome protective womb from the fast paced life most of us lead. There can be no doubt about it, Christmas resonates somehow with most people in the west. Sadly, the memories of happier childhoods bring into stark relief the often cruel present; and the contrast drives the emotionally fragile over the brink. Suicides always increase over the holiday season.
Christmas in the year of our Lord 2001 will be different. One of the many aftershocks of what is now called "9/11" (September 11) will be a new found appreciation for the simpler values we have lost in this Age of Accumulation. Make no mistake about this: many more people, Christians or not, are radically looking at not only their lives, but about the self-centred culture unleashed by the forces of globalization. Cheerleaders (many of them unhappily Christian) for the market mania attack on the public good are having a sober second thought about the greed unleashed and legitimated by the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney years.
My worst fear this year in Christian churches is that we will once again trivialize the Christmas stories we hear every year; that we will once again sentimentalize the depth of social and political criticism contained in these overly familiar myths. It is a staple in biblical scholarship that the birth narratives are theological, not biographical stories meant for adults not children. Let me demonstrate this by simply focusing on the reading at Midnight Mass this year. It is the well-known Lukan gospel with its major symbols of Bethlehem, the manger, the inn and the shepherds.
Luke writing 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus knows the end of the story, that this Jewish baby who grows up to be the anointed (Christos) of God, will die literally down in the dumps where Jerusalem garbage was collected in the place called Gehenna. Though nobody knows where Jesus was born (probably it was Nazareth), his birthplace for Luke is the city of David, Bethlehem. Remember Luke is writing a gospel -not a history. Theologically, he situates Jesus in the line of David.
The baby born naked (swaddling clothes) will die naked on a Roman cross. His nakedness symbolizes his vulnerability to God’s call and to the outcasts. Luke knows "there was no place for them in the inn" (2:7), because there was no place for him in the power structure of Israel or Rome. There was, however, a place for him with those the bible calls the anawim, the bent, the broken, those on the margin—like the shepherds we meet in Luke (2:8) These are fitting symbols for history’s outsiders, the very ones Jesus declares blessed in his kingdom of "the Unclean, the degraded and Expendable classes."(Crossan)
Now this picture of Jesus is largely embarrassing today. You can bet that in our middle class churches every effort will be made to keep Jesus in his crib and not allow him to grow up, or be considered crazy by his family (Mk. 3:21) the wide-eyed kingdom peddler that he was, a threat to Rome and the religious power brokers of his own Judaism.
Our late and great scripture scholar Raymond Brown maintained that the birth of Jesus was threat to the "imperial propaganda" we see in Luke’s gospel. In Chapter three, Luke trots out all the hacks of empire—Pilate, Herod, Philip- who served Augustus the emperor (Luke 2:1). Now, we know that Augustus declared himself dominus et deus (Lord and God). Luke says No–it is the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes who is Lord, and whom he knows will grow up to wear another crown (of thorns) and initiate another kingdom.
John Paul II in his New Year’s message this year ably sums up the essence of the baby’s challenge: "No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness." These are not simply words, but a profound challenge to Christians today. We either are in service of the empire (represented today by the World Trade Organization, World Bank, global corporations and their sponsors ) or we are in the service of the Kingdom. If we choose the latter, we inevitably will get in trouble—as the Christmas baby did when he discarded his swaddling clothes.
In this sense, the Christmas story we shall hear at Midnight Mass is what theologian Johann Metz calls "the dangerous and liberating memory of Jesus of Nazareth." Metz, like Brown and Crossan and many other biblical scholars understand that this childlike myth we hear each year has lost its power; sentimentalized and trivialized beyond belief in the Disney culture, and misunderstood by biblical fundamentalists and denuded of its latent power by preaches seduced by a suburban captivity.
Metz has it right when he says that "danger is a fundamental category for understanding Jesus’s life and message." Would it be stretching things to suggest that today it may well be the shepherds of today who understand the call to social transformation? The biblical shepherds who first recognized Jesus were the non-experts, the religious illiterates, people of a lowly station, scorned by the religious establishment. Those who missed the coming of Jesus (because he always shows up in embarrassing settings) were the religious experts, trained in theology and the art of accommodation; indeed the very ones who handed Jesus over to be crucified. Things have not changed in 2,000 years.
It is indeed ironic that "9/11" is also our symbol for danger and crisis. The danger for the church will be that its poor theology will sap our energy, direct us into safe waters rather than help us become a real community of disciples ready to follow Jesus and align ourselves with the poor, the destitute and the voiceless. As Fr. Metz starkly puts it: "the church must turn away from a religious-services-oriented church to a socially critical-prophetic church through a solidary practice."
This Christmas as we hear the powerful Lukan narrative, may we see with new "eyes of theology;" may the babe in swaddling clothes, born outside the inn lead us to an adult religion one "of crisis and hope, one which disquiets, interrupts, contradicts, endangers and forces us to have hope against hope in an unending praxis of universal justice, solidarity and peace." (Metz).
Ted Schmidt is editor of Catholic New Times. His memoir Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood was published recently.