I haven’t posted anything on kitsch lately (that’s the understatement of the year!), but when I saw these tasty nativity scenes I just had to post them. Perhaps they were inspired by Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Who knows?!
This one looks tasty:
This one, on the other hand, would need a lot of mustard:
[Merry Christmas everyone! This is the second part of a Christmas sermon presented here with only minor editing. The first post may be found here]
Johnâ€™s Metaphysical Manger (John 1)
The second passage I want to direct our attention to helps us understand some of the theological implications of the birth of Jesus. The passage I am referring to is chapter one of John’s gospel. In this highly metaphysical and philosophical passage the significance of the birth of Christ is interpreted theologically.
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived [tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a fatherâ€™s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, â€œThis was he of whom I said, â€˜He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.â€™ â€?) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Fatherâ€™s heart, who has made him known.
The Mystery of Christmas: The Incarnation
This passage tells us a number of things about that baby in a manger. In particular it tells us something about the divintiy of the Word and the ministry of the Word.
â€œIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.â€? John tells that the baby in the manger is divine; God made human, God incarnate. Johnâ€™s Christmas account revels in the mystery of the incarnation. The word “incarnation” and the adjective “incarnate” come from the Latin in carne â€œin flesh.â€? Note the progression: In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Note that John says not that â€œGod was the wordâ€?, but that â€œthe word was God.â€? John is not saying that the Word is â€œa god,â€? as though the Word was a lesser god alongside the supreme God; nor is John saying that the Word was simply â€œdivine,â€? nor does John say that the Word did god-like things without possessing the divine nature; rather John is saying that the Word is God in his very nature, yet without exhausting the being of God. The baby in a manger was fully human and fully God. He was God incarnate: “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.â€?
The divine nature of the Word is seen in his activity in creation (vv. 1â€“5), revelation (vv. 5, 9â€“12, 18) and redemption (vv. 12â€“14, 16â€“17); in all these God expresses himself through the Word. The baby in the manger, the Word made flesh, was with God at the beginning and all things came into existence through him. The Word also reveals God to us. Paul says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Both the deity and the humanity of Jesus are fundamental to his saving work. Itâ€™s because Jesus is God the Son â€“ the Word made flesh â€“ that we can know God, itâ€™s because Jesus is God made human, that we can understand his death as the supreme evidence of Godâ€™s love for us.
There is more to Christmas than our minds can comprehendâ€¦ when we come to Christmas, when we look upon that baby in a manger we are looking upon God incarnate. We are looking upon a mystery. Thereâ€™s More to Christmas than Meets the Mind.
The Paradox of Divine Condescension
And this is the mystery of Christmas. Here you have the paradox of divine condescension; the mystery of God accommodating Godself, God becoming human.
At root, to save us God came not in his full glory as God but rather as a human; God came as a baby crying in his motherâ€™s arms, a baby that required feeding and changing, a baby that was entirely and hopelessly dependent on others. God hid his glory, he limited himself. Remaining one with and equal to God he took the form of a slave. By becoming one with us, he was able to share our sorrows, bear our burdens, and ultimately die a criminal’s death and atone for our sins and unite us to God.
That is the real meaning of Christmas, and itâ€™s my prayer for all of us — as we get together with friends and family, as we eat turkeys and hams, as we do all these good things — itâ€™s my prayer that we would also realize that there is much more to Christmas than meets the eye and that the miracle of Christmas is not how much turkey you can eat, but it is that God so loved the world that he was willing to take on human flesh and enter this world as a helpless baby… a helpless baby that would one day die a criminalâ€™s death on behalf of us all.
[Since I am going to be quite busy the two days with family, church, and preparing a turkey dinner for twenty people, I thought I would post some more informal Christmas meditations. The next couple posts are made up of one of my Christmas sermons; I reproduce it here in two parts with only minor editing. - TFW]
Sometimes I donâ€™t think we realize the full significance of Christmas because we focus too much on a romantic and idealized version of the Christmas story: Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem and not finding any place to stay the night, end up giving birth to baby Jesus in a manger, etc. This quaint and romantic idea is epitomized in the Christmas carol, â€œAway in a Manger.â€?
Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
But there is nothing quaint or romantic about the Christmas story as told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.
Lukeâ€™s story highlights how when Jesus was born, how he came to the dregs of society â€“ to the poor, to the outcasts. Jesus was born in a peasant home or perhaps even a cave for animals and was placed in a dirty animal feeding trough (for those of you who have dogs… imagine not cleaning your dogâ€™s food dish for a year and then think about whether or not you would want to let a baby play with it!), then to top it off his â€œhealthy beginningsâ€? visit was made by a bunch of filthy lowly shepherds â€“ outcasts of society.
Matthewâ€™s story isnâ€™t a whole lot better! Matthew doesnâ€™t say much about Jesusâ€™ birth, but he does recount how when Jesus is a toddler he was visited by some wise men (astrologers) who recognized him as a future kingâ€¦ while this was nice and while Iâ€™m sure they appreciated the gifts they brought, the astrologers also alerted Herod to the existence of a potential challenge to his power â€“ which made Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt (anyone who has ever taken a two-year old on a long driving trip knows what fun they must have had along the way!)
Thus, the Christmas story isnâ€™t quaint or romanticâ€¦ and I think that we have to work hard to o make sure it doesnâ€™t become so familiar that it looses its power for us!
But this morning I want to direct our attention to a couple of Bible passages that may at first glance be unlikely candidates for a Christmas message. Both are attributed to the Apostle John, and both also give accounts of the birth of Jesus, so to speak: The first I have dubbed Johnâ€™s â€œApocalyptic Adventâ€? (Revelation 12) and second is Johnâ€™s â€œMetaphysical Mangerâ€? (the first chapter of John’s Gospel).
Both of these stories will give us a very different perspective on Jesusâ€™ birth, and will teach us a couple things about Christmas that the traditional stories donâ€™t.
Johnâ€™s Apocalyptic Advent (Revelation 12)
The first â€œbirth storyâ€? I want us to take a look at is perhaps the weirdest one in all scripture. It comes from the book of Revelation â€“ a book that also gets the award for being perhaps the weirdest in the Bible. Itâ€™s a book that is notoriously difficult to interpret. Itâ€™s full of symbols and apocalyptic language. It reveals the first lesson that I want us to take home today: Thereâ€™s More to Christmas than Meets the Eye.
When Jesus was born, it was far from a regular everyday birth: it was an event of cosmic and eternal significance. It was an event which had massive implications in the spiritual realm. Now, the traditional Christmas stories also point towards this cosmic significance of Jesusâ€™ birth: Luke has the multitude of angels announcing Jesusâ€™ birth to the shepherds and Matthew recounts how astrologers find a heavenly sign of the birth of a king. But these signs pale in comparison with what was revealed to John:
12:1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. (NRSV)
The passage continues to recount of a great war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragonâ€¦ and how the dragon suffered an initial defeat and then a final defeat and how Godâ€™s kingdom has come the kingdom of God and the messiahâ€¦ etc. So here we have a surrealistic and highly symbolic portrayal of the birth of Christ and its cosmic and spiritual implications: that with the coming of Christ there erupted a great war in the heavens, a war in which God was ultimately victorious.
This sounds more like something Gandalf or Elrond would say in The Lord of the Rings than anything you would think you would find in the Bible! And its something we really donâ€™t know what to do with. From early on we are brought up to trust our senses and be skeptical of anything that canâ€™t be verified by them. Most of us have a hard time believing that the world as we see it is really not the world as it is. And even if we believe it, we donâ€™t seem to live any different because of it!
But the reality is (at least the reality presented in the Scriptures) that the world as we see it is not the world as it is. And Christmas as we typically see it â€“ a cute baby in a manger â€“ is not Christmas as it is.
Itâ€™s kind of like The Matrixâ€¦ when we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, when we take the blue pill, so to speak, and a whole new reality opens up to us. We recognize the world that we thought we knew is really only some of the story. (Of course, a major difference between reality and The Matrix is that there is continuity between the world or our senses and the spiritual worldâ€¦ rather than discontinuity as in The Matrix.)
So the first lesson I want us to take home with us today is that Thereâ€™s More to Christmas than Meets the Eye. The birth of Jesus represents an event of such spiritual magnitude that is only surpassed by his death on the cross — and that should amaze us!
The second passage I want to direct out attention to this morning helps us understand some of the theological implications of the birth of Jesusâ€¦ but I will turn to that in tomorrow’s Christmas post.
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, have a great Chrstmas eve.
‘Tis the Season to be Tacky… that’s right, the Kitschmas season is upon us and its time for another installment of Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch highlighting the degradation, commercialization, and trivialization of Christmas.
This post is part of an on-going series on Jesus Junk and Christian Kitsch. Perhaps the best place to start is with my fourth post that discusses some of the different academic perspectives of exactly what is â€œkitsch.â€? Other posts include:
This special Christmas season I had the privilege of being interviewed by Bill Radford of the Colorado Spring Gazette about my views on Christmas kitsch. The article, simply entitled, “Merry Kitschmas,” was published today — it is well worth a gander (how’s that for a shameless plug!).
Now back to the kitsch. As expected, this year all the standard pieces of Christmas kitsch are out in full force. While many of the items I highlighted last year are tough to beat, I think there are definitely some items worthy of mention.
Happy Birthday Jesus!
I must confess. One of our family Christmas traditions is to have a birthday cake for Baby Jesus for the kids on Christmas day. We put candles on the cake and the kids sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus” and then help Jesus blow out the candles. Now that I have that off my chest, I never realized how my “Happy Birthday Jesus” paraphernalia there is out there.
“Happy Birthday Jesus” tableware is avaiable from shop.com (but you’ll have to wait until next year as they are all sold out!). But if you don’t want the full meal deal, you can just get some bright neon “Happy Birthday Jesus” cups from the Christian Dollar Store:
The Christian Dollar Store actually has a whole bunch of other “Happy Birthday Jesus” merchandise, so go take a gander.
Speaking of “Baby Jesus,” this “Dear Lord Baby Jesus” prayer scence from the movie Talladega Nights is a must see!
Jesus Loves You Snow Much!
If you don’t want to be outdone by the “Happy Birthday Jesus” crowd, then you also have to get your share of “Jesus Loves You Snow Much” stuff.
Not to be outdone in sheer cheesiness, you can also get a bunch of “Jingle for Jesus” wear, including a baseball cap, among other things:
The Cavalcade of Animal Nativities
The blog for “Generation – Young Canadian Anglicans” is hosting a humorous cavalcade of bad nativities this year (a number of which I already highlighted last year, like the mega-sized inflatable nativity, the troll nativity, and — one of my favourites — the belt buckle nativity).
They did manage to find a number of mind-numbing animal nativities, including dogs, owls, and chickens.
Canadians will be happy to know that there is a moose nativity, while Austrailians will think the koala nativity is just crickey!
They missed, however, the cat and the bear nativity sets:
Since we have a couple pet bunnies, I was disappointed not to find any bunny rabbit nativity sets.
These are all avalailble, by the way, from Our American Heritage. (HT to Bob Derrenbacker for the Young Canadian Anglican site)
Papal Tree Ornaments
My Catholic readers will be happy to know that you can purchase Papal tree ornaments featuring Pope John Paul II (HT Ship of Fools):
The December 2006 edition SBL Forum is online — at least I think it is the December edition. It says it is the January 2007 Forum, but it’s still December and there hasn’t been a December Forum yet. Furthermore, in an email conversation with Leonard Greenspoon about the Forum, he noted that he was busy working on the December Forum. Whether it is the December or January SBL Forum, it is there in all its glory.
This edition has a number of interesting articles. Here is the table of contents in full (I am going to make reproducing the contents of each Forum in full my habit since there is no index to previous Forums):
I haven’t seen The Nativity Story yet, though I am hoping to see it this weekend. I may post my impressions of the film after I view it, though there is an incredible amount of reflection and reviews of the film on the Internet, so I doubt I would add anything new.
I just came across an interesting article in the Independent Catholic News on the history of Mary in the Cinema. It’s definitely worth a read.
In addition, make sure to check out Matt Pages’s Bible Film Blog for many relevant posts on The Nativity Story.
Ever wonder about the historical accuracy of the Nativity Story? There are a couple recent news articles on this very topic.
Most recently, Yahoo!News issued a press release on the topic (“Professor Shows Accuracy of Bible’s Christmas Story, Debunks Popular Myths“) in which Dr. Jack Kinneer, New Testament professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) in Pittsburgh, responds to some of the questions about the authenticity of the birth narratives of Jesus.
Here is an excerpt:
Myth: We can only vaguely date when Jesus was born. Reply: “Scripture, ancient history, and modern astronomy enable us to pinpoint Jesus’ birth within the winter months of 5-4 B.C.”
Myth: Matthew made up the appearance of a star. Reply: “Modern astronomy calculations confirm extraordinary celestial phenomena during this exact time period.”
Myth: It is implausible that the Magi would have traveled from Persia to see the star. Reply: “It is implausible that they would not journey to see it, as they were not kings, but astrologers. It was their job to study and interpret luminaries in light of ancient prophecies.”
Myth: Jesus’ birth was at the star’s appearance, several years before the Magi’s arrival. Reply: “Herod’s decree to kill Hebrew sons two years old and under after the Magi’s visit presumes the birth of Jesus may have just occurred. Matthew’s Greek grammar describes the birth of Jesus as the timely setting of the Magi’s arrival.”
Myth: Jesus was two to three years old when the Magi arrived. Reply: “He was no more than a few months old.”
Myth: The dating of Christmas on December 25 accommodates a pagan feast. Reply: “It is a calculated estimation from when the angel appeared to Zechariah during his datable priestly duties.”
Myth: The Hebrew “virgin” birth citation is embellished. Reply: “The Isaiah 7:14 quote was interpreted as “virgin” by Jews centuries before New Testament times.”
Myth: Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt was a long overland journey and stay of a number of years. Reply: It was probably a brief boat trip and a stay of only a few weeks to a month, which fits the setting of historical political events.”
I don’t have time to comment on any of this right now (I really should be marking!), though I will say that some of his points are over-stated and simplistic (read on…).
Another recent story in the Times Online (“The Real Christmas Story“), Oxford professor Geza Vermes provides a different perspective and highlights four features of the traditional nativity story that do not derive from the gospels.
…The date of Christmas on December 25 does not appear until AD334 when in a Roman church calendar the Nativity of the Lord replaces the pagan feast of the Unvanquished Sun. Before the 4th century, the birth of Jesus was celebrated on January 6 (Epiphany), or April 21 or May 20.
The idea that Joseph was an old widower with a grown-up family comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, written in the 2nd century in an attempt to make less puzzling the by then current doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the gospel references to brothers and sisters of Jesus. The presence of an ox and an ass in the stable is also alien to the New Testament.
As for the kings or wise men, they were neither. Matthew calls them magi, magicians or stargazers, without mentioning their number. The figure of three is no doubt deduced from the reference to the gifts left by them: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Lukeâ€™s Gospel supplies most of the New Testament ingredients of the Christmas tale after a preliminary report on the angel Gabrielâ€™s annunciation of two miraculous conceptions: that of John the Baptist by the post-menopausal Elizabeth and that of Jesus by Mary, a young virgin from Nazareth engaged to Joseph. Lukeâ€™s chief topics are the census decreed by Augustus and implemented by the governor of Syria, Quirinius. Both the census and Quiriniusâ€™s role in it are historically questionable as, apart from Luke, we have no evidence of a census in the kingdom of Herod or that Quirinius was in charge of Syria while Herod reigned. There was a Roman census of Judaea conducted by Quirinius, but this occurred ten years after the death of Herod in AD6.
Further peculiarities of Luke, taken over by tradition, are the birth of Jesus in an animal shed on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the angelic choir and jolly shepherds, and Jesusâ€™s presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem on the 40th day after his birth. Matthewâ€™s story starts with Jesusâ€™ family tree, meant to demonstrate his messianic descent from King David through Joseph. Matthew becomes self-conscious, however, when his list reaches Jesus and seeks to avoid a phrase that would imply that Jesus was Josephâ€™s son. So instead of the standard formula, A begot B, B begot C, he writes: â€œJacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.â€?
However, some old Greek, Syriac and Latin manuscripts tell a different tale: â€œJoseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was betrothed, begot Jesus.â€? Church tradition asserts, furthermore, that the ancient Jewish-Christian sect of the Ebionites maintained the biological paternity of Joseph.
But this prophecy can be interpreted as a virgin birth only if it is read in the Greek Bible, where the word parthenos is used. For the original audience of the gospel message, who perused the Hebrew text of Isaiah, the person who conceived and bore a son was not a virgin, but an almah, a young woman. Reassured by another dream, Joseph proceeds with the marriage, but abstains from â€œknowingâ€? his wife until the birth of Jesus.
In Matthew there is no census, no journey from Nazareth, nor a stable in Bethlehem. In his Gospel the oriental visitors, followers of the miraculous star of the Messiah, find Jesus in Josephâ€™s home in Bethlehem. The Magi are directed there after the Jewish priestly interpreters of Scripture have deduced that the Messiah would be born in that city.
Envisaged from a literary angle, the two dramatic elements characteristic of Matthew, Josephâ€™s psychological torture, and the panic inflicted on him by Herodâ€™s murder plot â€” a story strongly reminiscent of Pharaohâ€™s attempt in the Book of Exodus to destroy the infant Moses and all the newborn Israelite boys â€” are both absent from Lukeâ€™s happy and charming tale.
Thanks to the skilled editorial hand of the Church the originally dramatic Nativity story has developed into our merry feast of Christmas.
While I can’t really say more than that right now, I can refer you to one of the best scholarly works on the subject: Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1999; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).