Friday, December 13, 2013

It Just Won’t Do: Rewriting Jesus’ Story to Make It Nice

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a favorite of mine.  So it is with some joy that I listen to Cloverton’s Hallelujah (Christmas Version), its words telling the story, in brief, of the coming and leaving of Jesus, whom my kind call The Christ.

I say ‘some joy’ because, while Cohen’s music and Christ’s story never fail to move and their combination is powerful, there’s something missing.

I noticed right from my first listening – there’s no edge.  Even with the brief lyrical account at the end of the crucifixion, there’s no edge.  And in Leonard Cohen’s original – in the playing of the music, in the lyrics, in Cohen’s voice itself, there is definitely edge.

So too in the Christmas story.

The need we seem to have in our time and place for everything to be nice (or the extreme opposite coming
from the same impulse – that all be nasty beyond belief) leads to a perpetual erasing from the story as it appears in biblical texts of such things as the slaughter of the boy children and Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s time living as refugees in Egypt . . . or the oppressive policies inherent in forcing an occupied people into displacement merely to be counted for taxation purposes . . . or the scandal of having a child in questionable circumstances (let alone bearing the child of God) . . . or the giving of symbolic gifts which predict the coming demise of one who is now but a babe . . .

The story is not only beautiful and wondrous . . . it is also portentous and frightening.

The point of Jesus’ life and hence his story is that he enters the human condition unconditionally, with all its fraughts and frailties, risks and redemptions.

It is a story with edge.

There is no baby in a manger to lullaby without also allowing our mortal flesh to fall silent in the face of such a literal earth-shattering entry.

No coming of the faithful, no telling on the mountain, without the bleak midwinter.

The sacrifice of the cross only comes after the sacrifice of The Holy Innocents for The Holy Innocent.

Singing the beauty without also singing the horror and cruel ironies is to rewrite the story into meaninglessness.

It just won’t do.

*It must be remembered that I write from my own context as a Protestant living and working in the United States.  The Catholic and Orthodox traditions are much better at remembering and observing the harrowing realities of the story of Jesus' birth, including their observance of The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  

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