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The grace of being of a fool
Someone said to me just before Christmas a few years ago that he going to midnight mass; he said, "to celebrate the scandal". I knew he had given up the church many years ago, but that he once knew it quite well. I knew too that like many people he still appreciated the music and art produced by the Christian faith. It was a sad wistful kind of remembrance that drew him back, at least every Christmas Eve; but I was puzzled about him calling Christmas a scandal. So I said, "It was the cross that was a scandal", knowing that he would remember what I was talking about, and probably the text in Paul's writings:
It was a scandal, quite improper and foolish to think that the Messiah, the holy one of God, even God himself, should allow himself to be put to death in such a shameful way.
"Yes, yes!", said my friend, "I know that, but about Christmas, I can't imagine why God would want to become man."
I suppose I can see his point. After all, if you were God would you want to become a human being. Whatever you think of God, you must admit that people are not all they might be. If you were their creator, would you really want to join them, to become one of them. Would you not rather be God in heaven, wherever and whatever that is, at least somewhat removed from the often sordid limitations of human life. Why become a human being, when you have the whole universe at your disposal? It does seem a little foolish. People who believe that God did such a foolish thing, might reasonably be regarded as fools themselves -- that is if they were not already fools for believing in God in the first place!
There is quite a lot in the Bible about being a fool. Paul said,
Another time he said,
He made a little irony of people thinking him foolish,
I would like to share with you two stories of people making fools of themselves. [For which I am indebted to a posting on the Internet list PRCL-L by Paul L. Larsen.]
The first is the sort of thing that could have taken place almost anywhere these days. It concerns a woman postal worker named Emmaline, who was a Sunday School teacher. She was getting on in years and was about to retire. I suppose she was looking forward to a fairly ordinary quiet life; but she became angry at something that happened in the local politics of her community. People had been used to putting up a nativity scene in the city park, but this year the council had decided not to allow a Christian display in a public place. Emmaline went to see the mayor and pleaded to have the nativity scene in the park. She said, "You can't have Christmas without Christ." But the mayor argued that he had to protect the religious liberties of all his constituents, and there was no room for Christ on public property in his town, which we will call Jonesville.
Let me just add here that in our own city we have to fight similarly to any recognition of Christ in Christmas, in spite of the fact the community in general makes a great deal of this celebration of the birth of our Lord. For example, the representative of the Interchurch council where I was a few years ago had to face strong opposition from the City to any presentation of the Christmas story as part of the public carols by candlelight, and what little was allowed had to be very carefully negotiated. Closer to home, when I had not heard about the usual arrangements for a Christmas service for the local Pre-School, and rang to be told that "This year's Committee, has decided not have a church service. We are having a different kind of end of year break-up." At Shoppingtown when the chaplain puts up his display he is told to be careful not to make it too Christian. A general message about peace is OK, but direct reference to Christ might be offensive. On the other hand things seem to have been a little easier at some points this year, and the play group which uses our facilities was pleased to have an introduction to the manger scene in the church. These a difficult times. Whether Christ can taken out and you can still have Christmas is a real question for secular Western society at this time.
Anyway to return to our story, the next day, Emmaline met her Sunday School class and told them there was no room for Jesus at the inn, and now, in their own town there was no room for Jesus either. What should they do about it? One girl, we will call her Bonny, suggested that they enter a float in the Christmas parade that was always held in their town; they could put a manger scene on it, she said. They had to struggle to get it ready and find someone who could provide truck and so on, but when the day came, a week later, they ready in a sort of a fashion.
It was a cold cloudy day when they started out, and soon misty rain began to fall. The float behind them was being pulled by horses and after while the parade slowed to a stop when the float in front was held up, and Fred driving the truck heard a scream from behind. Emmaline jumped out of the front of the truck and found little Bonny in her Mary costume crying and yelling at the horses pulling the next float which had come right up to them. The horses had discovered the hay in the manger and were having a free meal and the children were trying to beat them in the heads with their fists -- with no effect.
As they moved off again, the mist turned to steady rain. The card board props began to droop. The angels' wings sagged. Bonny clutched her battered doll in her arms and the tears were streaming down her cheeks when they reached the reviewing stand where the city and state officials were watching the parade. She looked up and saw the Mayor pointing derisively at the float and laughing at it with the state Premier. At that moment there was the flash of a news photographer's camera capturing every dreadful detail of their sorry plight.
The next day Emmaline was recovering in bed and she looked at the newspaper. There right across the front page was their picture, with their sorry little messed up manger scene, the children crying and the mayor pointing and laughing. Soon the phone rang began to ring. You can guess what happened: everybody thought they were great. The national networks picked it up and they were seen all over the country on TV. As you would expect fools became heros and the mayor was ashamed; and people started asking what these people stood for.
As Paul said,
What does it matter to us? Only this, that it will take a few fools for the truth about Christ to maintain the scandal of Christmas. Everyone is welcome to enjoy the family celebration, but it will lose its meaning in another generation unless a few more fools for Christ can be found. It will be no use planning to enjoy the music and drama of the midnight Eucharist when there are no fools who believe in it.
Another little story to illustrate a deeper truth. It concerns a man named Henry Carter, who used to be a pastor in charge of a home for disturbed children, and small boy named Tommy who looked much younger than he was.
It was Christmas Eve, and as preparations were being made for the carols service Tommy crawled under his bed and refused to come out. One of the cottage mothers went to fetch Henry. When Henry reached the bedroom there was nothing visible of Tommy hiding underneath. Henry talked to Tommy as if he were addressing a bucking horse on the bed sheet. He talked about the brightly lighted tree, the packages beneath it and the other good things awaiting Tommy, but no answer.
Still fretting about the time this was costing when they needed to be ready for the service, Henry got down on his knees and lifted the bedspread and looked straight into Tommy's two enormous blue eyes. He could have pulled him out easily, but it was not pulling that Tommy needed, but trust; so Henry launched into the menu for Christmas Eve supper that was soon to be served, and he told a special present just waiting with Tommy's name on it. It was no use, just silence and not a move from Tommy. No indication that Tommy heard or care at all about Christmas.
Henry was beginning to feel a bit foolish. After all he was a man of authority and this was an undignified position to be in, especially with his staff watching. Nevertheless he got down even lower, flat on the floor and wriggled in under the bed along side Tommy, and he talked for quite a long time. Eventually, after talking of decorations in the church, the candles, the carols the kids were going to sing, and finally running out of things to say he simply waited.
After a while the small child's hand slipped into his, and Henry said, "You know Tommy, its a bit a tight fit in here. How about you and me go out where we can stand up." As they slid out from under the bed Henry realised that he had been given a glimpse of the mystery of Christmas. How foolish of God to get down, even under the bed with us. With all the stars and mountains and the whole majestic creation, hadn't God pleaded with us to love him; hadn't he spoken with us through his prophets and law givers, but we would not listen until he had come down to our level and dwelled with us in our loneliness and alienation. What foolish humiliation, and yet what a power of grace.
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