Smothering Baby Jesus

Article by   December 2010
Ouch! The things Christians once got up to! Think, for instance, of old Simeon, the once-ballyhooed guru of the sixth-century Holy Fool movement. Not content with rubbing mustard into the eyes of the partially blind in mock 'healing' ceremonies, he dedicated himself to a ministry of streaking in the circus, tripping people up, and consuming vast amounts of beans on solemn fast days - with predictable results. During church services, he would pelt the priests with nuts and blow out the candles; at other times he would drag himself around on his buttocks, punch adulterers, eat raw meat and defecate in public. 

Then there were his friends, the Grazers: men who lived only on grass and shoots and who indulged a penchant for chaining themselves up like cattle. And who can forget Simeon the Stylite, the man who lived atop a fifty foot pole for forty years? Certainly not those who saw him. In devoted awe, his biographer tells us, the crowds would gather 'to worship the worms as they dropped from his body'. One can almost hear the 'oohs' and 'aahs' as Simeon managed to touch his feet with his head 1244 times in succession. No wonder he started a craze for pole-squatting in his day.

Getting inside the head of a fool
What motivated these fools, grazers and stylites? How can we explain such devoted lunacy? Quite simply, historians reckon: it all goes back to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. At that, Christianity became socially acceptable, even preferable, forcing the keen to do more than simply confess their faith if they wanted to show their fervour. With disgust at the compromises of mainstream Christianity coursing through them, the zealous set out to renounce the world and its conventions. They would no longer live like the depraved. They would be fools in the eyes of the world.

Understandably, they were deeply admired and lionised in their own day. After all, they were the ones really taking the fight to where it was at, facing worldliness head on. And yet, with the fools now safely six feet under, we are able to wonder: hadn't something gone awry? 

Indeed it had, and badly so. For all their admirable zeal, their theologies and ministries were being driven, not by the news of the incarnate Saviour, but by something else - a reaction. Their agenda was being set by the wrong thing. It was eminently understandable: the threat of Christian nominalism was very real. But to have built their all upon a reaction made for some decidedly lopsided thinking. When the raison d'être was fighting the worldly indulgence of the compromised, chastising the body seemed an obvious thing to do; had the incarnation been definitive, that would have seemed very far from obvious.

The fools, then, stand as testimony to how far wrong a ministry can go when it is driven and shaped by something other than the incarnate Christ. So, as Christmas fast approaches, how can we be people of the incarnation and avoid the pole-squatting, head-banging equivalents of today?

The baby who upsets everything
Seeing the relevance of the incarnation doesn't come naturally to us today. And so, come the carol service, we preachers are tempted to leapfrog all the business about Jesus' birth and head straight for the more familiar ground of the cross. 'He was born in order to die' we say, almost as if he might as well have floated straight down from heaven to Golgotha. 

What was the incarnation about, then? Was it about God coming to help us? But he'd done that many times before: rescuing his people from Egypt, from the Philistines, from the Assyrians. 

The verse the early post-apostolic church probably turned to most to guide their understanding was Hebrews 2:14, 'Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil'. In other words, the incarnation was, quite specifically, about the Son of God taking to himself the flesh he had created for Adam so that he could heal it of all that had been inflicted on it at the Fall. In Christ, real flesh and blood would be taken through death into the hope of bodily resurrection. 

Cue stylites shifting uncomfortably on their poles. For the incarnation showed that salvation was not about discarding the body and floating off to some 'Spirits Only' zone, but about our very bodies being saved and given a future. And that means that bodies are not to be despised as if starving and beating them could make us any better. Instead, the incarnation gives sweet hope even to the most ravaged or unloved bodies. Happy news to speak into bodily self-loathing!  

It is strange that the fools should have traded in such hope for a mess of self-abusing pottage. And yet, from second-century Gnosticism to nineteenth-century liberalism, that has been the Christian temptation: to think of salvation in abstract or less offensively tangible ways. One understands the appeal, of course: do that and our message need no longer jar with anyone else's, the gospel remaining safely protected behind the fact that it makes no real difference. But appealing or not, to do so is the move of a fool who throws away his treasure for no more than brief applause. 

Something deeper and darker
If we could leave it there, the fools' error would have seemed easy to diagnose - and quite easy to avoid. But we can't. For, worse than forgetting the what of the incarnation, the fools forgot the who. 

The who of the incarnation is perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all. That is, this baby is Immanuel, God with us. He is not just some divine ambassador. He is God: God in the flesh. But if so, what an unexpected God! He does things that God really ought not do. We all know perfectly well that God belongs on a throne, not in an animal's feeding trough. But he seems not to be aware of such protocols. 

So unsettling is his identity that we'd far rather declare that he is not really God, after all. He simply upsets too much of how we know God ought to be. We'd prefer a more English God, a God polite enough to realise that he should never break into our history and disturb our understanding of how things are. Yes, a God who, bluntly, makes not a lot of difference.

But what is it about his identity that so upsets things? Quite simply, it is that when we see the incarnate Christ we see a very specific person. We do not see a system of thought or a religious principle, but a man - a man who personally is God, salvation, truth and life. And that entirely alters the very shape of Christianity: conversion here cannot then at root be about exchanging one set of beliefs, practices or perspectives for another, but abandoning other loves for love of this person. 

Killing him softly 
More than anything else, forgetting that was the real fools' error. Their problem wasn't so much that they had a low view of their bodies; fundamentally, it was that they had forgotten the person of Christ, their incarnate God and Saviour. Of course, it wasn't as if the very name of Christ escaped them; it was that Christianity was no longer essentially about that person. Essentially Christianity for them had become a system of religious behaviour. Christ had become incidental for them, little more than a model of what the right behaviour is. 

And that seems to be the perennial danger for the church, living always a hair's breadth away from dethroning Christ and replacing him with - well, anything. Sometimes Christ seems to slip between the cracks of all the doctrines and word studies; sometimes it happens ever so subtly, when Christ is no longer proclaimed, but a 'Christian worldview' (or even just a 'theistic' one); sometimes he is drowned in a flood of moral exhortation or church activism.

It was something Screwtape saw great potential in when writing to the junior devil Wormwood: 

'What we want,' he said, 'if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know--Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.'

If we go that way, allowing our lives and ministries to be shaped more by that Something Else than Christ, it will almost certainly mean popular acclaim from Christians in our day. So it was for Simeon and the fools. But just as certainly will future generations laugh at the absurdity of our distortion. 

For, in Christ we see a God who is not easily harmonised. He is an almost uncomfortably specific God who must be thought of and spoken of in entirely different ways to all other supreme beings. As must his salvation. There can, then, be no real 'Christ And'. 

Christmas, then, lies in ambush in the diary, ready each year to leap at us with the challenge: is our life, thought and ministry driven and shaped, from the bottom up, through and through, by Christ, who took on flesh and died? Or are we fools, driven more by some other agenda? The church's greatest challenge is nothing other than distraction from him; but our refreshing is to be found in following that pointed finger to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

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