Wednesday, December 21, 2011

* Jingle Bulls: The Manger-Religion and the Real Dirt on Xmas

My brother, Kit, and myself, age four or five.

Note: This blog post assumes that Albert Schweitzer's book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, is incorrect and that such a person as Jesus (Joshua ben Joseph) can be certified as having existed in first century history.

The Manger-Religion

Sixty-two years ago, when I was five years old, my mother and my Sunday School taught me the words to Away in a Manger.

     Denial and romanticism are such great faculties in the human arsenal of self-delusion that it has taken me these full six decades to comprehend the actual meaning of the first verse of this song:

    *Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,01The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.

     I always thought this was a pleasant scene, like the plaster crèche the Mt. Carmel Congregational Church Sunday School put out for display each year.  

     Even though I knew  what a manger is, (a trough raised on stilts full of oats or hay out of which animals eat so they won’t have to bend their necks to the ground) I never examined what it meant to the baby in the crib. (Think French: "manger": "to eat.")

     Have you ever owned a dog or cat?  Have you ever washed out its dish after it is finished eating its dry kibble?  Even after one meal, the dish is likely to be covered in a film of saliva and mucous.  

     Imagine that the dish (the manger) NEVER gets wiped out and is visited by dozens of animals a day, donkeys, goats, pigs, cows. 

     That was  the little Lord Jesus’s first encounter with the world : a beddy-bye lacquered with the veneer of saliva and snot from barnyard animals, in a kind of excretionary patina.

     If the sanitation challenges of such a slumber chamber are not apparent to you yet, imagine the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying on hay. 

      At the least, the hay is a source for allergy and skin irritation to the sensitive skin and nostrils of the Christ child.  At the most, it is a superhighway for lice and vermin to infest the infant in his helpless confinement. (Think veterinarian: a dog with "mange".)

     This isn’t any pleasant Advent for the arrival of "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"(in latin,  Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum , INRI).

     How could a barnyard baby become King of a whole people?  

BTW, this is the same aristocratic, snobbish question which is used to discredit Shakespeare's authorship: How could a simple lad, son of a glove maker,in Stratford-on-Avon in the 1500's write such worldly plays about nobles? It must have been the Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth herself who wrote them and used the name of Shakespeare, the mere actor, as a pseudonym. This line of  'reasoning' smacks of a knee-jerk hostility to egalitarianism, an egalitarianism which is quintessentially present in the notion of a barnyard divinity 1500 years prior to Shakespeare.

     Nor are the social circumstances of Jesus’s conception, gestation, birth, and upbringing any more pleasant than the unsanitary realities of his first days on earth.

     Mary and Joseph are betrothed,** a social arrangement similar to what our "engagement" used to be when I was a child; they are “married” (committed to each other formally)  but are not allowed to have sex for one year.

     This means that Mary’s pregnancy is a scandal for Joseph's reputation as a first century "Middle Easterner." (To this day, 2000 years later,  in the Middle East, there are instances of women who commit adultery being sentenced to death by stoning.)

     It means EITHER that Joseph disobeyed the no-sex prohibition of the first- year-long betrothal, or that he has been cuckolded.

     Well, we all know which is true: 

                    Joseph has been cuckolded.  

     And its not just any old cuckolding which has occurred:  Joseph has been cuckolded by Divinity Itself: The Lord God of Abraham.

     My, my, my. 

     This  first Christmas is turning out to be not only unsanitary, but truly a first rate scandal.

     King Herod was sufficiently threatened by the reality of a possible barnyard heir, that he ordered the slaughter of all  male children born in the last two years since the manger babe was to be born of a virgin and  ipso facto was a "first-born"-----a sweet blood-filled backdrop to the manger-baby's arrival (and a potent precursor to primogeniture, which ruled the world for the next 1900 years roar until it dies with a whimper ten years ago when one of the world's few remaining monarchs, Queen Elizabeth II, abolished it in a gesture to the late Princess Diana).

     If that isn’t bad enough, Jesus will have to endure taunts about being a bastard ***from some of the adults and officials in his first century Palestinian world. (See John 8: 39-42, below)

     So, six decades have stripped the rose-colored glasses from this Sunday School sing-song vision of the Nativity which I grew up with:

  Jesus was born in what is one step up from a pig-sty or chicken-coop today (a stable) surrounded by animal excrement , saliva and mucous, and subjected to the prospect of massive skin irritations as an infant fresh from his mother’s womb.  

His father, Joseph, well might deserve the title “saint”, for he  had to overcome doubts he surely must have entertained about having been made a cuckold, especially after hearing what must have sounded liked the  biggest cock-and-bull-story in history from his wife: An angel told me God made me pregnant.

Finally, Jesus himself, is born under circumstances of doubtful parentage, ensuring that he will endure the taint of being  a possible bastard from those mean-spirited adults in his own first century world.

     Ultimately, as the story of the manger-child comes to a conclusion, Jesus will be abandoned by his Divine Father to suffer and die, nailed to a cross, with the accusation INRI  "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"(in latin,  Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum ) nailed to the cross above his head, 
even though that Divine Father had the power in an instant to free him---and chooses instead to look the other way.

     This, of course, is a fate  which all human beings  come to accept: Death is choreographed as the end of life  by the same Creator who choreographed birth as its beginning.

     Indeed, Jesus's last words are not words of faith at all, but of doubt: Daddy, Daddy, why hast thou forsaken me? : Abba, Abba, lama sabbachthani?

      Why all this reversal, irony, and doubt of a barnyard babe who is actually a divine king, humiliated in birth, life and death? Of royalty in rags? Saintliness  disguised as sin?

      Isn't this one heretical story to be teaching a Sunday School child to sing ----The illicit story of saintly acceptance and trust, those theological calming-rituals preparing us to deal with life's Ultimate Anxiety?

That's the whole point of the manger-religion, isn't it?

                               To triumph over death.

Paul D. M. Keane
M. Div. '80, Yale Divinity School

Christmas, 2011

Words: Unknown, 1885 (verses 1 & 2)
Verse 3: Attributed to John Thomas McFarland, 1887 (1851-1913)
Attribution by James R. Murray to Martin Luther is incorrect.
Music: "Mueller" by James Ramsey Murray

1. Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,01

The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.

2. The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes.02

But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
And stay by the cradle till morning is nigh.03

3. Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,

Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to Live with Thee there.04

Mary and Joseph were "betrothed" which in today's world - is hard to understand. They were "married" in the sense that they were fully and totally committed to each other and have given a pledge to one another. They had not consecrated that vow with sexual union. They were not allowed to for one full year after the pledge was exchanged. At that time - they were seen as "married", but could not have sex.Watch Fiddler on the Roof to see what "pledge" meant in the Jewish culture. 
Scripture tells us that Jesus was the first-born child of Mary. This had to be true for her to be a "virgin" in the first place. Scripture also states that she had 5 more children: half-brothers/sisters to Jesus for their father was different. 
The story of Mary/Joseph / Jesus is a deep theological story that offers us strong connection to the Son of God / Son of Man doctrine. You could spend an entire semester studying the implications of this one thing.


One of these occurs in the Gospel of John (again!) with �Iesous� having a confrontation with some group (Saduccees or Pharisees?, it is not specified but they seem to be making shall we say hints about �Iesous� parentage somewhere in here: see John 8:39-42 

The conversation is clearly not a literal event, but a combination of theological discussion heavily edited and made into a literary poem of sorts, but buried deep within the gist of the conversation is the odd phrase: 

�We were not born of Fornication: [at least] we KNOW who OUR father is...� 
(lit. "WE (emphatic in the Greek: HUMEIS) are not bastards: we only have one father") !!!!!! 


�s hitting a little below the belt, even for Pharisees and Sadduccees. 

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