Taking the Wraps off the Christmas Present
Christmas comes with a lot of wrapping. Specifically I mean the wrapping around Jesus. I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to that aspect of the holiday. I want to get to the heart of the matter and I don’t need all the wrappings. I want to take Jesus of Nazareth as he comes to me as an adult in the gospels. Except in Matthew and Luke, which both have infancy narratives, he comes out of the blue, as an adult with a sketchy or unknown past that invites speculation. God knows there has been much of that over the centuries. Jesus has been cast in whatever role people want to cast him in, including that he was among the Essenes (Hugh Schonfield), that he was an agent of the mystery cults of Greece (J. M. Allegro), or that he went to Tibet to learn the mystical approach to God (Levi Dowling). More recently, serious scholarship has sought to locate him among Jewish mystics, wandering cynics, and others.
Then there are all the wrappings around the story at Christmas itself: the angels, the shepherds, the heavenly choir, the visit of the three magi, and all of it. Surely we know that the wrappings entice us to see his birth as a monumentally special event in the course of human history. Neither Mark nor Paul apparently knew this miraculous beginning to a humble life. All these additions gathered around the simple story like barnacles on a hull.
I am not concerned about the commercialism, the cookies, or the veneer of tradition that beefs up the season but has nothing to do with Jesus. Here’s my concern.
Nothing is so idolatrous as pasting an image on someone in advance. In ordinary life we call it prejudice. Yet we do it all the time and with Jesus it is done in spades. All the overlays get in the way, frankly, and block him from coming to us anew.
Think of it this way: policemen and military people have uniforms; to some extent a plumber or an electrician looks like one, and priests and doctors wear special clothes, too. There is a sense in which “clothes make the man (or woman).” They project a set of expectations: the plumber will fix your pipes, the officer will protect your life, and the doctor will heal your body. The clothes are symbol and sign.
There is, however, a down side to this, particularly with regard to Jesus. When he comes to us thoroughly wrapped in symbols and signs, he comes with a prescribed role. So much tinsel and glitter blinds the eye. Yet when we take off the wrappings we may hear and see him anew.
Look, I want people to see Jesus as divine and human as much as the next Christian teacher does. But I don’t beat people over the head with this belief, which is why I want to step over the wrappings to see him with fresh eyes. You have to come to this conclusion on your own…or not.
All we have are these writings with their symbols and signs. Yet if you look within them, you see the core. You see a person grappling with his role in the world, with how to understand and talk about God to others, and with how to deepen our compassion. You see one seeking to become fully human and inviting others to do the same, and to be in relationship with God. You see a person so unique that many who experienced him could only refer to him in terms usually reserved for God.
Thus he still comes to us today. Welcome him with fresh eyes and ears.