A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
My Jewish friends send Christmas cards. They decorate Christmas trees and exchange gifts. They bake Christmas cookies. They even attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
When asked why, their answer is the same: We love the story. We love the mysticism and the message.
Who wouldn’t? It’s hard to resist the pageantry – and the marketing – of “the greatest story ever told.” Barbara Streisand has recorded no less than six Christmas albums! And some of our most beautiful Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, such as Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
The story is indeed fascinating: An unmarried young virgin is impregnated by God himself. Initially rejected by her skeptical fiancée, they are forced to flee and give birth in a stable surrounded by kindly barn animals. A bright star shines overhead beckoning shepherds and wise men, yet foiling the evil ones who are on the hunt for this little baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Oh…and the baby just happens to be a king, the long-awaited messiah destined to save humanity from our sins.
Despite my strong Catholic indoctrination with the story as portrayed in the Gospels, I’ve read enough over the years to know that a literal acceptance of it is irrational. John Shelby Spong, a religious scholar and now-retired Episcopalian bishop of Newark, has written numerous books on the topic and finds the story seriously lacking in accuracy. Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013) analyzes the story of Jesus detail-by-detail using historical archival data. As a result, he debunks almost the entire narrative. (For instance, Jesus of Nazareth really came from Galilee.) It’s interesting to note that Professor Aslan is a former Muslim who converted to Christian Fundamentalism as a young adolescent. While working on a Master of Theology degree from Harvard and then a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religions, this heretofore-stalwart Jesus disciple was deeply disappointed to discover the fallacies embedded in the New Testament.
I find such historically-based disclaimers fascinating. We know that the Gospels weren’t written until decades after the last apostle died, leaving no eye-witness accounts. And since they were all illiterate – including Jesus – they left no written records or journals. (Think Telephone Game.) Besides, none of the apostles were present at Jesus’s birth anyway.
I don’t care. I love the story of Jesus wherever and whenever he was born (because we also know it wasn’t in December 0000). I lovingly display my manger scene each year, moving the wise men a little closer every day. My Christmas cards feature the Holy Family. I belt out Silent Night, tears flooding my eyes every time: All is calm, all is bright. The story simply warms my heart.
But I love the story of the grown-up Jesus even better. This little homeless baby grows into an outspoken advocate for social justice. Jesus presented a problem for the Roman authorities by challenging oppression and injustice; still today, he creates a socio-political problem for conservative Christians. Jesus was not only poor himself; he advocated for the poor. He preached against judging others. He condemned the wealthy and commanded them to give it all away to enter Heaven. He fraternized with the unclean and unholy. He challenged hypocrisy among religious leaders. He embraced children. He spoke against war.
So I puzzle over why so many Conservative political leaders wear their Christianity like a badge even as they propose dismantling critical social programs like health care, social security, child nutrition programs, and women’s health services. (Jesus hung around with Mary Magdalene.) Why they side with corporations over people. (Jesus drove the money changers from the temple.) Why they consider unbridled weapons on our streets and torture of our “enemies” acceptable. (Thou shalt not kill is the sixth commandment.)
Judging by the tenets Jesus delivered, and shamelessly quoting a bumper sticker, Jesus was a liberal. This is dramatized in Roland Merullo’s allegorical tale of what might happen if Jesus returned today (American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics, 2008). When Jesus applies his Gospel teachings to modern-day events, he is most vehemently rejected by conservative Christians. And (spoiler alert), they are the ones who assassinate him in the end. Because they don’t want to hear “Turn the other cheek” when our World Trade Center is bombed. Uh-uh, no way. Better to live by the sword and, apparently, die by the sword. Exactly what Jesus preached against.
Yet conservative Christians also tell us we cannot cherry-pick The Bible. We must accept it all as God’s word, as relevant today as it ever was. Literally.
In Merullo’s book, Jesus asks the crowd clamoring for revenge, “What? Did you think I was kidding when I said that stuff?”
I don’t believe Jesus was kidding. Then or now.
So enjoy this season when everyone adores the story of the impoverished little baby boy born in a stable. Babies are cute and easy to love. But like most of us, Jesus gets more obnoxious as he grows up and becomes an activist. He recruits and inspires others to join his protest. Whether the miraculous birth story is true or not, historians agree that Jesus lived and was crucified for challenging Rome’s unjust treatment of his fellow Jews. Dr. Aslan closes his book Zealot by saying that Jesus’s advocacy for social justice alone makes him worth following and emulating. Something some of my Jewish friends seem to understand.
God bless us, every one.
Copyright 2014 by Patricia A. Nugent writing for Vox Populi