Monday, December 25, 2006

What have they done to my song, Lord...

My wife was telling me a very funny story about an incident of vandalism involving one of the ubiquitous, inflatable, front yard Christmas decorations. Apparently, in some small town in America some teenagers decided to express their cultural objection by stabbing Frosty, the illuminated Snowman.

The victim, looking forlornly at Frosty's nylon puddle exclaimed, "WHY ME! WHY FROSTY?"

On Christmas eve, I attended Catholic Mass with my wife and boys - a rare trip to church for me. I take my beliefs seriously which is not to say evangelically, conservatively, or in orthodox fashion. And church is one of the last places I look for insight.

And every once in a while I'll attend church when a gifted theologian takes an all too short residency. Gifted priests don't last long in the Catholic Church. In fact they're as rare as hen's teeth these days. But Christmas is the day I try the baptismal waters once again.

I'm in my fifties and I have experienced a LOT of Christmas masses and this year's was the worst ever. It's Christmas and I've wrestled with saying so because, well, it's Christmas but, in the end, it would be unChristian to let such a low point slide.

The Christmas story is a highly decorated, super-fiction that is intended to illuminate the basis of Christian faith. The historical facts, whatever they may be, are simply a springboard for the most popular religious fabulisms that have captured the Christian imagination over time.

And, with these stories, come self-evident contradictions that as an intelligent child and teenager I could never resolve. The contradictions are SO obvious and striking that presumably, anyone with a brain might think twice about. But I would attend church with my father and he would nod out and sleep through many a mass and the fellow parishioners always seemed unconcerned with what was being said.

I would ask myself, "Is anyone listening to this?"

And the big contradiction is this; angels sing, play trumpets, send loud messages, that Christ, the son of God is born. Three big-shot Kings take a road-trip to visit the child, drop off some goodies for the po' boy, and apparently go home empty handed and plan a different trip for their next outing.

Christ, Mary, Joseph, and the town of Bethlehem are left with little or nothing to show for the 15 minutes of fame, the spotlight, and the failed public relations campaign of heaven, three kingdoms and word of mouth.

There are no stories of Joseph hanging a shingle that read, "Joseph and Sons - one of whom is, by the way, the son of God!" No, life went on for thirty odd years before Christ even bothers with his mission. And he does so with no letters of recommendation from Three Kings. He is a populist.

I finally resolved this paradox in mid-life. The happy talk birth stories are for the indoctrination of children and the feeble-minded - sugar-coated theology. A more serious, adult narrative might emphasize the mortality of the child, the humility of the birth and family condition, and the anonymity of the arrival. You don't have to be Christian to appreciate the thought-experiment of this theological speculation.

A few years ago, a more gifted priest even speculated on Joseph as an adoptive father - a high point in Christmas masses for me.

This year my sons are teen-agers whose angst I felt as we all endured an uninspired, joyless, seemingly endless reinterpretation of Christmas that I had never been subjected to in my life.

You see, these days the Catholic Church is more interested in serving the politics of war than the spirituality of the Christ. The Christ child of this story is a birth story of a cosmic media superstar who arrives with a political agenda, "Peace on earth, good will toward members in good standing." Oh yeah, forget about exercising free will - this Christ is taking no prisoners and is taking names.

The Christ of this Christmas seemed more vengeful and self-righteous than his dad. And in a wholly adult audience, the silly Christmas stories were inter-dispersed with condescending moral admonitions, subliminal political loyalty oaths, and a guest mention of the - wait for it - devil itself. This was Christ as Mel Gibson might cast the part, the new sheriff in town surrounded by devils and a big, evil world to clean up. Step out of line and you're left behind, chopped liver, and out of luck.

By the way, merry Christmas! Yeah, that's the best part, merry Christmas!

I could barely sit through it. Like the home-owner who wondered in astonishment of who would attack Frosty, I wondered why the church allows misguided moralists to distort the theology.

I told my boys that now that they're old enough to think for themselves, they could say no to this. Teen-agers need to know that adults are aware that bullshit is bullshit and that despite of the pollution the season is worth celebrating for all the right reasons. And they need to know that just because a holier-than-thou person is sugar-coating their speech in religious platitudes that they are no holier than a person who is still growing their soul.

Billy Graham, recently interviewed in a major magazine was asked how he felt about this absolute insistence of churches that only true believers will find salvation replied by saying, "God and God alone will make that decision."

That's my understanding as well.

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