Sunday, December 11, 2005

"Yet at the coming of the king of Heaven...."

I was actually thinking about this issue today, or one pretty similar to it: about the nativity, about Luke's story.

"Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger."

For some reason it occurred to me why you would wrap a child in swaddling clothes, or "strips of cloth" as the Scholar's Version more prosaically translates Luke's Greek. Partly for warmth, to be sure, and probably for a cultural belief that children should be bound just after birth (not illogical, considering the confines of the womb, and the complete lack of apparenty physical boundaries just after birth). But there's another reason, of course:

Babies poop.

Which is not meant to be shocking or silly or scatological; it's just true. Babies poop.

Part of the reminder of the Lukan nativity story, as Ship of Fools picks up on at that link, is that it was quite a scandalous story. Not the inhospitality of the tale; we've gotten that part all wrong. The humbleness, the extreme poverty of the family, the extremely lowly birth of the child! Even Matthew has Magi come from afar, because a prophet is without honor in his own country, and they bring him gifts fit for a king (well, frankly, the burial of a king. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume dead bodies, which began to smell rather quickly). Luke has the angels, literally the messengers of God, the ones who first speak to a priest (Zechariah) and then to Mary, singing to...shepherds! The "bikers" of 1st century Palestine. The guys who live in the wilderness, and poach each others sheep (ever try to brand a sheep?), and these are the guys God sends the heavenly chorus to, in order to announce the birth and invite them to come see it.

It's the absolute opposite of what Ship of Fools calls kitsch. It's the absolutely human story of what Johannes Climacus called the Absolute Paradox: God the Eternal made Temporal. But we can go a step beyond that: God made human. God sleeping. God eating.

God passing waste, if you prefer a bit more delicacy about the matter.

It occurred to me, too, that this is a bit more of our Greek heritage poking through. Luke and John both take pains to emphasize that Jesus was human, his body real, especially, for John, after the resurrection. The Jewish Mark and Matthew seem to have been unconcerned with this issue. To them, the human was the body, not just the spirit somehow imprisoned within it. Perhaps, to them, there was no need to emphasize the humanness of Jesus, because spirit entering flesh like a hand in a glove or a puppet, wasn't part of their thinking.

But our heritage is Plato, and Socrates, and the Phaedo. Spirit and flesh are oil and water, and we have a harder time getting them together. Read the article through, and you'll see that defecation was an active problem for the church in the second century. It has also lead to much Christian asceticism that seeks to remove the soul as much as possible from the body, a la Socrates in the Phaedo.

I think the conclusion of that article is right: our Christmas is not materialistic enough. Not simply in removing the kitsch from it, and making that birth real, and human. But in removing the comfort zone from the holiday, the Clement Clark Moore version of Christmas.

We need to be reminded that: "At the coming of the king of Heaven/all's set at six and seven." That no matter how we dress it up, still "Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn./We entertain him always as a stranger."

"And, as at first, still lodge him in a manger."

(In haste earlier, I failed to give proper credit to Renee in Ohio for directing me to Ship of Fools. My apologies.)

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