Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Jesus We Create

In my children's sermons this month, I've been teaching them about the nativity scene, since this Sunday they'll be putting on their annual Christmas pageant (you know, the one that is always dripping with cuteness and is about as accurate and true to history as a Hollywood script). Despite the artistic liberties that we routinely take with the nativity scene in order to portray it in our churches, on our mantels, and in our front yards, it remains a means of teaching our kids, and then decades later, their kids, about the Christmas story in a way that is tangible and concrete--no small thing when we're talking about a birth that took place over 2,000 years ago.

And I love nativity scenes, even as I sometimes poke fun at them--a few years ago, I used my chess pieces to create a nativity scene that received equal measures laughter and good-natured mocking on Facebook, as apparently I couldn't be bothered to go out and get, you know, an actual nativity set (an oversight my parents promptly rectified by sending me a nice olive wood nativity set that now sits on my desk in my church office).

All of these Christs are made by hand--and our hands, not God's. Which means we are apt to make these Christs in our image rather than the other way around. The kid who plays Jesus in the nativity scene looks like us because parents often pass physical characteristics onto their kids. The actor/underwear model who plays Jesus in a Passion film looks like us, only with longer hair, because we're the ones who are casting him, directing him, and paying our money to see him perform.

Christmas, a joyous time that it might otherwise be, has in truth become a time of irony for me as a I realize just how much we have made Jesus into our image rather than the other way around--and in so doing, created our own form of idolatry. We are not so much following a Jesus as much as we are following an idealized version of ourselves.

But does this idealized version of ourselves actually advocate on behalf of Syrian refugees, or does it repeat the xenophobic platitudes of our president-elect and is only now, with civilians being summarily executed by pro-government forces, getting on the #Pray4Aleppo train, as though a prayer now will excuse their apathy then?

Does this idealized version of ourselves really underscore the radical nature of the Christmas story, of a nine-months-pregnant teenager giving birth in a stable full of dirt and animal shit, or does it simply give us the warm fuzzies that a nice piece of gingerbread or a cup of egg nog could just as easily do this time of year?

Part of us making Jesus into our image, rather than the other way around, is not just making Him to look like us, it is to cut Him down to size--to exactly our size, in fact--rather than the cosmic-sized Savior that He is and continues to be.

I honestly wonder if part of the reason why Christmas seems to be a bigger deal at times than Easter (it's not like Easter themed-commercials hit the airwaves before Ash Wednesday, after all) is precisely because we actually prefer our Jesus small, infantile, and non-threatening.

Indeed, as one of the verses in a Away in a Manger goes, "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes/The little lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

But we have little babies in my congregation who cry out, and to me, that is the true miracle--that they have voice, that they are known, and that they refuse to be invisible in this world.

Dammit, I want my little lord Jesus to cry out. I *need* Him to cry out. I need to know that He does indeed sit on the throne, see the ill that is happening in our broken world, and calls us to do something about it.

So instead of a nativity scene or a baby Jesus, today's post has the image of Christ the Pantokrator--which, in Greek, literally means Christ the All-Powerful or Christ the Omnipotent.

As difficult as it is for me to subscribe to the notion of an omnipotent Christ--He was also human after all--it is a damn sight more comforting to me this Christmas.

If a baby who miraculously does not cry is what brings you to the manger this Christmas, then by all means, let Him call you forth. But for this Christmas, I need a Savior who cries out. I need a Messiah who is indeed Lord. And I need a Christ whose miracle is not the absence of crying, but who is in fact quite capable of it--for Syria, for Newtown on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, and for all of us who long in our bones for a better world.

We're 11 days away from Bethlehem, brothers and sisters. Stay devoted.

Vancouver, Washington
December 14, 2016

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