In my other blog, Faith Pondering, I wrote recently about our long-practiced and deeply harmful ways of “otherizing” groups of people with whom we wish not to empathize. Now I ask you to consider with me a different type of otherizing which I regard as Christianity’s constant danger from within: the otherizing of Jesus.
The idea is simple. The more we make Jesus appear utterly different from us, the less we have to trouble ourselves with his way of life in faith. At Christmas time, we celebrate what we call the Incarnation: the coming of the truth (Word) of God into our own flesh and blood as one of us, limited in time and space, vulnerable to all the forces that hurt and destroy us, not omnipotent or omniscient or omnipresent but embodied just as we are. But the idea that he was truly and fully one of us makes worshipers uncomfortable. So, we are tempted, time and again, to misrepresent incarnation as a disguise, a veil, through which the privileged (called, chosen, reborn) are enabled to see Jesus as he really is. We are tempted to make Jesus’ humanity seem fake, illusory, deceptive. Why? The more we can make him totally different from us, the more easily we can keep him where gods belong and the less he represents for us what our own humanity should be.
Here’s a brief passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus’ disciples pull a switch that much of Christian preaching has followed:
22 One day [Jesus] got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out,
23 and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.
24 They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.
25 He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:22-25 NRSV)
Do you see the shift? Jesus asks his terrified disciples where their faith is. What happened to their trust in God? Did it get blown away when the wind picked up and threatened them?
And the disciples answer Jesus’ question by saying . . . Uh, well, no, they don’t respond to his question at all. They shield themselves by exclaiming over how different – indeed unique – he is. Jesus the exceptional! Jesus the divine. Jesus the other, the not-as-we-are, not one of us. Isn’t it much easier to have someone to praise, adore, and glorify than someone who challenges us? So, in our account at least, his question goes unanswered.
During the Christmas season, I have often wished the word “king” didn’t rhyme so conveniently with bring, ring, sing, and ding-dong-ding because I get tired of singing about the coming of the King. Jesus presented himself as a servant and called his disciples to follow him in a life of humble service, trusting God and showing (embodying) God’s compassion for people. He rejected for himself and his followers the way of power and glory. He does not permit us the luxury of standing apart from the shamed. But it is much easier to exalt and praise him than to follow him.
I think it’s too bad “servant” doesn’t rhyme with festive, celebratory words to fit into our Christmas carols.