I’m sorry, no matter how cute BABY JESUS might have been, you can’t tell me that the Three Wise Men (or Magi) knew just by looking at him that he was the messiah. How could an infant be GOD IN THE FLESH? And yet that is what many Christians believe took place, the very EVENT we commemorate during the Season of Epiphany [read more].
Traditionally Epiphany begins on January 6th, which celebrates the visit of the three Magi and concludes on February 2nd with the Feast of the Presentation, which marks BABY JESUS’ first official visit to the Temple. In many of these stories certain key individuals, like the Magi, recognize BABY JESUS’ true identity. Thus throughout this season Christians celebrate this realization that God had come to dwell among us. But if it’s true, that BABY JESUS was in fact GOD IN THE FLESH, why, 2000 years later, does God appear so absent?
One look at the news headlines makes my point: bottle necks in Haiti prevent the delivery of aid to earthquake victims, while poorly dug mass graves leave thousands of bodies exposed, displayed across our TV screens. Almost daily a suicide bomb kills civilians in Iraq or Pakistan, while rumors circulate that the Sudan is once again on the edge of civil war. In light of all this, why should we believe that BABY JESUS’ arrival changed anything?
The idea that even as a baby Jesus was immediately recognized as the fulfillment of the people’s longing and expectation sounds like an exaggeration born of hindsight. Not to mention all those bible stories which recount Jesus’ early childhood - they’re downright silly - sounding more like myths, than anything grounded in reality.
Recently however I encountered a news headline, which made me think that finally something had occurred which could be taken as the fulfillment of one these stories: A federal court ordered the state of California to release nearly a third of its prison inmates! [link] In Luke 4:14-21 [link to text], the gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus, early in his ministry, stands up before the entire synagogue and read from the Prophet Isaiah:
- “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After reading this, Jesus closes the scroll and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” True, the New Testament says that Jesus preached to the poor; he consorted with prostitutes and all manner of outcasts. It says he healed the blind, and raised the dead, but other than that, the bulk of the evidence appears to contradict Jesus’ statement.
Just look at the continued prevalence of prisons not only in Jesus’ own time, but in our own society. No wonder John the Baptist, held captive in a prison, doubted Jesus’ identity; he sent his disciples to question Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come? If it’s true, why am I stilled locked up in this dingy cell?” Again Jesus replies: “Go ahead and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them…” I wonder, to what extent do we witness such things today? In Haiti? In Sub-Sahara Africa? In the inner-city ghettos? Why is it that today the United States, a so-called Christian nation, imprisons more people than any other country in the world?
One could say that prisons are a necessary evil, which play an important role in maintaining a stable society. That anyone expecting a miraculous turn around, will necessarily be disappointed. Especially since God rarely, if ever, descends to earth to tear down prison walls… indeed, no one ever came to John the Baptist’s rescue, instead he was beheaded by his captors. Jesus himself was arrested, taken prisoner, and tortured. He was tried in the middle of the night and brutally executed the next day. And, as it happens, the State of California, in response to public demand, has refused to release its prisoners. It has filed an appeal to reverse the federal court order, delaying the process indefinitely. So much for the fulfillment of that prophecy…
And yet, in spite of this, the process to free the prisoners, indeed, the process to free all us from oppression, from whatever binds us, has been put into motion. As contemporary thinker Rene Girard explains, it did not come from a God on high, “the dominating God…that is incarnated in paternal, hierarchical difference.” Jesus allowed himself to be taken captive, he intentionally submitted to imprisonment, to oppression, and execution, his humanity utterly destroyed, erased, denied. But in doing so “a perfectly unknown god arises” with what Girard calls “the consenting scapegoat.” He is “the one that is most outside yet also the most inside common humanity.” (Rene Girard, Battling to the End, 50) Jesus allowed himself to be taken captive, in the crazy hope that he could unlock the prison doors from within, that the way to free the prisoners was to dismantle the closed social structures from the inside. The problem is, we are so reliant on these institutions, there are so many encrusted layers which enclose us, it is difficult for us to imagine how a stable society could function without them. But this renders us blind to the plight of those held captive, to the extent that we are not even aware of their existence. Which is why 2000 years later the process of freeing the prisoners is still underway.
We have this idea that Christianity was born, pure and simple, in a single event - a birth that changed everything - an assumption that postmodern philosopher Jean-luc Nancy calls the “Christmas projection” (Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 145). When Jesus proclaimed that the prophecy had been fulfilled, he announced an opening in the closed structures which imprison people, a small crack in the prison walls that was not visible prior to this - a crack in the very foundation of Western culture - not to tear it down, but to free those trapped inside, to set free their reality, that which had always been denied.
We assume that the contemporary dissatisfaction with the Church and traditional social structures is “the effect of a modern transition toward a rationalized, secularized, and materialized society.” And in large part society has turned its back on Christianity and the Church. Certainly there’s plenty of reasons to do so. But as Nancy says, the outright rejection of Christianity itself is just not possible, since “the modern world is itself the unfolding of Christianity;” to deny it “amounts to forbidding the modern world to begin to understand itself.” (Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 143-144) There “is perhaps something to be brought to light… something Christianity may not as yet have freed.” (Dis-Enclosure, 149)
The decline of traditional social structures, the cracks in the facade of the institutional Church, and the criticism of its time honored doctrines, like the federal court’s demand to free the prisoners, may be unavoidable for this process of opening to occur. Christianity calls to us, not from the Church steeples, nor from the hidden recesses of its stone vaults, but from the prison cells, from the mass graves, begging us to hope for a future in which prisons and executioners play a far lesser role in maintaining the social fabric. “As long as we do not grasp the full extent of this situation… we will remain prisoners to something that has not been elaborated in such a way as to be adequate to that history and that destiny,” (Dis-Enclosure, 148) - we are all held captive to some extent.
Indeed, the crisis with the California prison system may provide the opportunity for something unpredictable, some new realization that can only be gained through the recognition of the suffering of those whose humanity we’ve denied. Afterall, the prisoners slated for release are not hardened criminals, they are drug addicts and those convicted of nonviolent crimes. As long as they remain locked behind prison walls the rest of us can go on with our lives, believing that all is right in our world… I wonder, what is it, what experiences are locked up and contained within their broken and damaged lives, from which we so desperately want to hide?
We have made progress since Jesus’ day. He was condemned for “religious” crimes: violating the Sabbath, threatening to tear down the Temple, acting and speaking as if he were God. He directly challenged the closed religious structures of his day. Luckily, we no longer imprison people for those specific crimes, at least not in this country. And yet, only a century ago, entire families, women and children, were locked up in debtors’ prisons. Imagine how many would be jailed today, if that was still the case. So many Americans are imprisoned by indebtedness, a crushing reality, which most of us no longer consider a crime. Indeed, increased awareness of their suffering has led the Obama Administration to bring forth legislation which will begin to alleviate their plight.
For hope itself is born, not just once within a manger, but from within these very sorts of prison cells, in the very places where, historically, hope has always been extinguished. Its birth, wherever and whenever it occurs, is a wondrous event, and its proclamation continues to be good news - a light in the darkness, a process of opening from within hidden depths of human suffering, the revelation of the divine as opening itself. Describing THE BIRTH in these terms, makes far better sense than the “Sunday school” stories the Church continues to tell. “It is the Open as such, the Open of the proclamation, of the project, of history, of faith, that, by the living God, is revealed at the heart of Christianity.” (Nancy, 144) Reading Nancy I see that the first indication of this opening was the birth of Christianity, that the essence of Christianity is this opening, the structure of opening as an indefinite movement that does not cease opening itself (Nancy, 146).
John Caputo speaks in terms of the EVENT, “a summons, a call, demand, claim or appeal, as well as a promise…” (Caputo, Weakness of God, 28-29). When Jesus entered prison, when he was taken captive, he unlocked the gates from within, he released an EVENT which broke open the closed religious and political structures, which delivered an unprecedented shock to the system, an EVENT which set off “unforeseeable and disruptive consequences.” This EVENT “need not be delivered by a thunderbolt. It gradually, quietly overtakes us, grows on us, until at some point we realize that everything has been transformed.” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 26-27) What does this mean in 21st century terms? It must concern those we continue to criminalize:
“The people Jesus had in mind when he announced his mission, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor.’ (Luke 4:18) - is the drug scene in the inner-city ghettos”
Like those in Baltimore, “whose grim violence is unforgettably etched in our mind by the stunning cinematography of The Wire [link],” the critically acclaimed HBO series which ran from 2002-2008. “In the midst of the mindlessness of much of commercial television, there are artists willing to speak the truth.” (Caputo, 28) Like the debtors prisons, it is time to release the lives trapped inside, the women and children afflicted by poverty, the young men without hope, the drug addicts.
In a couple of weeks, on February 2nd, Christians will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, when they retell Luke’s story of the first time Joseph and Mary formally presented the BABY JESUS in the Temple. Looking upon the infant, Simeon, a holy man who refused to die until he had seen the messiah, utters his last words:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory of your people Israel.”
We can chose to read this literally, or dismiss it as just another mythological account of God’s appearance on earth in the form of an INFANT. But I prefer to look, as John Caputo does, for “the event that’s transpiring in the name of God,” (see Caputo, After the Death of God, 85, 160), in the name of BABY JESUS . The stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood are one way to describe the highly anticipated, yet completely unpredictable event that interrupts, as Captuo says, the normal course of human history. In the case of the Epiphany stories, a PROMISE and a HOPE which Jesus, as the “consenting scapegoat,” the willing captive, the executed prisoner, let loose in Luke’s own place and time.
That PROMISE, “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free,” is alive today. That PROMISE continues to call us, because, as Caputo says, “it is the very structure of hope,” an “unconditional demand” that becomes the process of opening itself, the breaking open to unforeseen possibilities in those places where hope and possibility is too often denied. To experience this, the BIRTH of this HOPE WITHIN US, could be very similar to those moments of recognition, those moments of Epiphany, what the biblical writers took to be GOD IN THE FLESH. - Sue Wright