12.24.2006

Let's keep the Cross in Christmas

In one of the year's best film moments (note I did NOT say best films), Will Ferrell's "Ricky Bobby" offers an amazing parody of prayer to "Lord Baby Jesus" as grace over the family's spread of fast food. When his wife and her father point out that Jesus grew up and became a man with a beard, he replies that "I like the Christmas Jesus best." What ensues, amid foul-mouthed comments and product placements, is an interesting tweaking of contemporary piety, in which Jesus' prime role is to take credit for the blessings we have been given, no matter how ordinary or excessive.

The scene inflamed many Christians, some to the point of boycotts. But as a reviewer at Hollywood Jesus put it, "The most offensive, frightening reality of the film is that Ricky Bobby’s world is a slightly-distorted mirror of our own." Pastor David Julen, whose First Cramerton Baptist Church was used in the movie, is more pointed: "Do we, like Ricky, really prefer the baby Jesus because He makes no demands upon us?"

Most Christians, of course, answer "No!" But the same is not true of our culture. Battles are fought over public creches, not crucifixes. The secular culture can get behind a helpless infant in a forgotten stall because of his message of peace and love; there's no threat here to the status quo. But the rabbi who called the religious leaders a brood of vipers? Who said his kingdom was outside the government's power?

The church is not exempt from this preference for the "Christmas Jesus." For many years a highlight of my Christmas was singing the second verse of the Lutheran Book of Worship arrangement of "What Child is This?"
Nails, spears shall pierce him through;
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Many hymnbooks and artists, though, have edited the cross out of this carol. One of my favorite recordings, Caedmon's Call's energetic rendition, substitutes "This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing" for this refrain, as does the default text in our presentation program. Sarah McLachlan's beautiful new version simply skips this verse altogether. Perhaps singing "Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading" would require an admission that we are not blessed people who welcome a baby as another blessing but sinners in need of a Savior.

Christmas, unlike Ricky Bobby's Jesus, makes demands on us. It calls us into the incarnational work God began in that smelly manger in Bethlehem. It calls us to be Christ's body in the world today, especially in its out of the way, forgotten places. Tonight we will remember the Love that entered the world through a tiny, helpless baby, the incredible sign of how far God was willing to go to restore God's people. Yet we do well to remember that this infant was not just a baby. The uncompressed, uncommercialized message of Christmas, as our bishop notes in her Christmas letter, is even better news:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [Colossians 1:19-20]

May we all experience Christ's peace this Christmas and always: not just the absence of strife or war, but the recognition that God is pleased to reconcile us -- sins and all -- to himself through Christ.

1 comment:

paul said...

Hey thanks for this article. I, too, have been struggling with the Christian backlash to this movie. I've been trying to find the words for why the movie (well, that scene in the movie) speaks to me and my understandings of contemporary piety, and you've hit the nail on the head.