A few days ago I heard again the old annual refrain: “We need to put Christ back into Christmas.” My immediate reaction was to say: “Ok fine, but first of all, let’s put Christ back into Christianity.”
A distorted Christianity proclaims a distorted moral vision. It can justify — often with popular applause — racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. It happens now and of course it happened in the past. Saint Albertus Magnus, for example, the “great” 13th century Dominican theologian, was fond of proclaiming: “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.”
In every age there have been and must still be prophetic men and women who courageously critique “Christian” behavior and call for conversion and reform.
An important part of that critique is a strong reminder that authentic Christ-based Christianity is anchored first of all in spirituality. We live here and now as Christ: in and with the Spirit of the living God. Christian moral behavior – not a list of rules or narrow self-serving gestures but a pattern of life — flows from that spiritual reality. We live in the Spirit of Christ with personal dignity and respect and compassion for the other. All others!
More thoughts about Christ and Christianity in the next couple weeks of Advent. Today just an introduction with some observations about Jesus of Nazareth. My immediate thoughts and prayers right now are more with family and friends in quarantine with Covid-19. The pandemic has now claimed more than 264,800 lives in just the USA.
I have done a lot of reading and study about the “historical Jesus.” My favorite author is the Irish-American New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. We know more about the historic Jesus but still don’t know a lot. Jesus was not white, like so many of those images so often showing an androgynous white European male. He was a dark-skinned Galilean. He could have been gay or straight. We really don’t know. Jesus, however, was probably very close to Mary the Magdalene, whom many scholars now consider the “beloved disciple.” I often think about Jesus in his early thirties with a group of disciples, young men and women in their late teens. Teachers like Jesus touch people deeply. They stimulate, support, and help them mature.
Certainly the historical Jesus was intelligent and wise. Like about 97% of the population at his time, Jesus may very well have been illiterate. Jesus was, however, very well versed in an oral culture and knew the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his religious tradition. Last week I was thinking about the image of the teenage Jesus described in Luke 2:46-48: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished.” Jesus still astonishes.
We really don’t know much about Jesus’ parents, although there is of course a great body of Marian devotional literature and traditions. Jesus did have brothers and sisters. His brother James was the key leader in the Jerusalem community of believers.
The four gospels are not historical biographies but theological reflections about the life, message, and meaning of Jesus the Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were most likely written between 66 CE and 110 CE. At the early councils of Hippo (393 CE) and Carthage (397 CE), they became the ecclesiastically approved biblical interpretations of the life of Jesus, each adapted to a specific audience. Today we know there were also other gospels, other interpretations. The aim of all was not so much to present historically accurate biographies but to pass on to early (and later) Christian communities the message and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus the Christ is our companion and trustworthy guide in our human journey. In the next two weeks I would like to explore: (1) Jesus and the God experience, and (2) Jesus and institutional religion.