Sunday, 25 December 2011

What would Jesus do... today of all days?

What would Jesus do… today of all days?

Lo within a manger lies
he who built the starry skies…

Doing what? Sleeping? Staring at the ceiling? Filling the first century equivalent of nappies? an occasional infantile gurgle or puke?

What did Jesus do? Not much, I’d say — certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The manger scene reveals the Son of God in a state of almost complete passivity.

The baby in the manger is almost as helpless as the tortured body on the cross.

And yet Christian theology says that in these two episodes of utter helplessness Jesus accomplished his life’s work, far beyond our capacity to describe let alone understand the implications. They are the heart of the good news, the foundation upon which everything else rests.

Jesus’ passivity is however, in itself, good news because it puts the boot firmly into into three pervasive pictures of God that are familiar but distinctly bad news. Disposing of these unwanted visitors to the manger can only clear the air.

First out the door is the “Action Man” Pocket God, always busy seeing people and doing things, fixing up the world, zapping the baddies and blessing the goodies real good. It’s a compelling, natural picture of God; indeed it’s the way most of us would tackle the job of being divine — it’s just not God’s. If God were like that, we’d have to say, with Woody Allen, he was something of an underachiever, as the good go unblessed and the innocent suffer. These facts, as much as the sleeping baby in the manger, indicate that this image is false.

Another god the sleeping baby disposes of is the absent Deist watchmaker, designing and setting everything off then letting it run. Whatever else he is, Jesus in the manger is the heart of the scene, present in the engaging way that babies become the centre of attention by not doing very much.

Finally out the door goes the old Gnostic God of Spirit, who’s around the world in some creepy mysterious way, but hates the place along with all unsanitised human beings. All that matters to him is Religion. Experience? Money? Work? Sexuality? Art? Science? He’s above all that. Jesus isn’t. He’s in the middle of it. Taking Jesus seriously involves laying aside the snooty assumption that the world is somehow beneath divine contempt. We may despise the world but Jesus’ two bouts of helplessness say the living God so loved it that he gave everything for it…

Finally among unwanted visitors to the stable, tell that pervasive old English hypocrite Pelagius to go away. “Don’t you realise the world is going to hell in a handcart?” he whines. “Do something! Pull your socks up! Sing Louder! Get Christians ideologically aligned! Get us back to the good old days, when God was safely back in his heaven and all was well with the world…!”

The baby in the manger sleeps on. And nothing will ever be the same again.

Alan Wilson

Posted by Alan Wilson on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 12:01am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking
Comments

A lovely piece of writing. A nice thought-provoking aprés to a lovely Midnight Mass here in Belfast. He is. We are. And we are at our best in Him.

Thank you.

Posted by: Gerry Lynch on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 3:17am GMT

Wonderful (though I still have a soft spot for Pelagius, to tell the truth).

Merry Christmas to everybody at Thinking Anglicans. Emmanuel!

Posted by: JCF on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 9:19am GMT

Thank you, Bishop Alan, for this little bit of Christmas wisdom. We need more homilies like this - in order to understand that God created humanity - yes, in the divine Image and Likeness, but then also of flesh and blood. The fact is; that God deigned, then, to inhabit the human 'earthly frame'in Jesus. This should warn the dualists of the problem of trying to separate out our human frailty from the deep meaning of God-in-Christ at the Incarnation.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 9:21am GMT

Thanks! Linked!

Posted by: Tim Chesterton on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 7:35pm GMT

What a wonderful thought!
I love Vanstone's Statue of Waiting but I'd never thought of Jesus having been passive right in the beginning of his life too.
Thank you, Alan, as so often before it feels as if you'd switched on a light!

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 25 December 2011 at 8:30pm GMT

A lovely meditation. I have often wondered if, in the end, the Christian's besetting sin is the need to be busy, and whether, since God is, we are just called to be.

The Candlemas hymn nicely juxtaposes some of the paradoxes :-

He sleeps in the manger, he reigns on the throne.

The Wonderful Counsellor, boundless in might,
The Father's own image, the beam of his light;
Behold him now wearing the likeness of man,
Weak, helpless, and speechless, in measure a span.

O wonder of wonders, which none can unfold:
The Ancient of days is an hour or two old.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Monday, 26 December 2011 at 10:45am GMT

I can't agree with all these accolades. We may agree that Jesus was born, was a helpless baby, etc. We also know (most of us) that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are fiction. Therefore it is unconvincing and irresponsible to build theology on them. Bishops ought to know better.

Posted by: john on Monday, 26 December 2011 at 9:17pm GMT

Well, john, just pretend it's a bishop who opposes women's ordination, and perhaps you'll find it in your heart to forgive Alan for Christmas!

All theology is built on nothing but supposition and myth, and is - largely - a philosophical spinning of wheels and exhibitionism, from Paul on down.

Posted by: MarkBrunson on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 at 4:58am GMT

John, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke may not be historical, but they are parables; and as we know from the stories Jesus told when he grew up, parables convey truth. The fact is Jesus WAS born, and he was a tiny baby. So it is perfectly proper to build theology on this fact. The 'manger' references are just cultural clues which immediately identify for us which baby we are talking about.
Thank you Bishop Alan for this.

Posted by: Anne Peat on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 at 9:09am GMT

John, you - a literalist? Your surprise me.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 at 11:10am GMT

Erika,

Sorry, it's not me but you (and the bishop(s) you defend) who are literalists.

I have no objection to these narratives. I sing the carols based on them. I love the associated razzmatazz. But they are fictions. Of course, I fully accept they express some larger truths. But because they are fictions, you can't make 'hard' theological inferences from them, e.g. (purely for example) the baby Jesus 'in the manger' passively waited. To do so is not only intellectually and theologically untenable, it makes Christianity look stupid. That bothers me. The fact that Christianity so frequently - one might almost say, characteristically - looks stupid is one of the reasons - I would say, the major reason - for its precipitate decline in the UK and Europe. One might have hoped that C of E bishops grasped this. Instead, every Christmas they (most of them - and some are even worse than AW) trundle out the pap we are discussing here. It's not good enough. In fact, it's dreadful - and it's deeply irresponsible.

Mark,

Yes, actually I do demand higher standards of 'liberals'. They get so far - they can see that Paul's strictures against homosexuality have to be relativised and contextualised - but they accept the most fairy-like narratives 'au pied de la lettre'. Yes, I realise you yourself have moved outside the envelope. I'm still arguing 'within the envelope'.

Posted by: john on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 at 8:05pm GMT

John, I know - as well as you do - that theology is an inexact science; heartfelt rather more than head business at times. However, I think that Bishop Alan is here appealing to the heart - rather than the mind - consistent with much theological speculation on the mission of Jesus.

However, we still have to remember the biblical admonition: "Where are your wise men now; where are your philosophers?" Human wisdom can never match the infinite Wisdom of God, but we can speculate. It often helps us discover a larger 'truth'.

I do agree that the biblical literalists are often out of key with the inner message of the Bible - especially on matters touching our common human nature. But that should not stop the Church from expressing wonder at the mystery of Incarnation.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 27 December 2011 at 9:02pm GMT

But, apparently, you do not hold one liberal to higher standards, John, or you would not have made such a post. Right? What did it actually add, other than a swipe at Alan Wilson? Do you imagine his audience so idiotic that we don't *know* the narratives are fictional?

If you want to base theology only in Provable Fact, pat. pend., I'm afraid you'll have *no* theology at all, until you can actually get God to sit down for a taped interview. Theology *is* a complete waste of time. That's why it's theology, and not accounting or political maneuvering or - for that matter - archaeology. It is none of the things the "World, Flesh and Devil" are interested in. It has no purpose, and no use - we won't *make* anyone believe, we won't *make* anyone better, and no one really cares whether we improve our own souls, unless it provides some material benefit to them.

If your complaint is one of drawing theology from fictional structure, you might want to jump on Jesus and demand He produce that sower, or the Samaritan!

Posted by: MarkBrunson on Wednesday, 28 December 2011 at 4:54am GMT
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