Would you be insulted if someone called you a heretic? Today I want to suggest that not all heresy should be condemned out of hand, and when it comes to Christmas, the occasional heretic might have something to teach us. A more cautious and reasoned approach to those who issue heretical challenges might even draw us back what is important to our society and world.
Before getting too uptight about safe-guarding details of favourite stories about Jesus and in particular worrying too much about questioning literal details of the all important birth story perhaps we might take a breath and give passing thought to what some commentators have noticed.
Paul who wrote his letters 10-20 years after Jesus finished his mission, and Mark who appears to have written the first gospel account, seem either not to have heard the birth stories or alternately not have thought them worth recounting. More to the point, Luke who wrote much more about the Christmas story than Matthew, has a consistent parable-like theme running through his account of the birth. The difference between straight reporting and parable telling, is that with the parable, the listener has to figure out what the story is asking by way of personal response. As the audience for Luke’s birth story, we might notice as with other parts of his gospel, Luke tells story after story of Jesus interacting with those outside the mainstream Jewish society.
If we are merely disconnected readers, there is no obligation to behave differently after we hear that story. Yet what would the story be saying to us if we saw it as our parable and started to believe that those outside the acceptable parts of our Church or society (like the shepherds in Luke’s story) were called to be witness for Jesus’ arrival? Does this remind us for example that we should open ourselves to care why such people moved into our community? This gives the story a particularly relevant dimension because we are rapidly moving to a situation in which there are more outside our Church community than there are within.
Those Persian Astrologers called the Magi, (not wise men or Kings) are also interesting although contrary to tradition, the number is not mentioned. The three gifts does not equate to three carriers of the gifts. But there again with such rapid changes to society, the thought that those outside our religion might be thought of as seeking the same message might provide the stimulus to reflect again on how we treat those coming from afar.
When it comes to Christmas it is interesting how many Church adherents you meet today who are already technically heretics – or at least they are heretics in the eyes of some Christians. Even affirming majority-held beliefs and customs is no guarantee of objective truth, even when the truth is about the coming of someone as important as of Jesus. The current heresy I am considering is to wonder if Jesus comes, not so much to be passively worshipped, but to start to remind us that we should become bearers and even demonstrators of his message of love and compassion, and even keepers of creation.
Not all self-claimed Christians insist that Jesus was born of a Virgin, or for that matter that he was attended by angels and surrounded by animals as he lay in a manger in a stable, that he was visited by three wise men (we three kings of Orient are!!?) following a moving star which led to the child in the manger, or that he was whisked away by his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the infants. In short, not all self claimed Christians even accept the birth stories as a literal record, and I know quite a few who question that the date December 25 is Jesus’ true birthday, and some can even point to evidence that many of today’s Christmas traditions have at best shaky Biblical foundations.
These days we think of a heretic as someone who questions mainstream traditional beliefs – and I guess we mainly think of a heretic as one who makes unwelcome challenges to what many think of as the accepted ideas about religion. But there is a caution. Any study of the history of religion reminds us that many of the religious beliefs have changed over time, so yesterday’s heresy might well become tomorrow’s commonplace belief.
And let’s face it, we are living in a time of major rethinking about religion. In an age where we are all becoming aware of the forces of nature as measurable and predictable in that they follow principles emerging from Science, we no longer feel at the mercy of an unpredictable God unexpectedly visiting identified sinful humans with mysterious diseases, bolts of lightning, or earthquakes when they fail to worship in exactly the right way. We no longer expect to find heaven earth and hell in a three tiered universe. Faced with the plague or any number of threatening diseases, relying on the prayers of religious leaders or placing a cross on our doors and making sacrifices of living animals has now given way to the growing science of medicine. When the all powerful God was considered to live in the dark recesses of the Temple, only speaking to the High Priest once a year, it made perfect sense to adhere to Judaism as the one true unchanging faith
Challenging old ideas is not new. In days gone by some heretics were punished severely for questioning the beliefs of their day. Heretics were tortured or executed to provide a warning to those questioning what the Church leaders had decided was the truth. Although there may well have been a desire on the part of the persecutors to hold to hard-won power perhaps we should remind ourselves that some of the punishment of heretics was motivated by a genuine desire to keep a chance for eternal life open for those who might have been tempted to stray.
Some branches of Christianity are still very strict in what they require of their followers and I guess many of us will know of Churches where members have been thrown out – sometimes even forbidden for ever talking to their own families because they happened to believe the “wrong stuff”.
By way of example there are some churches where homosexuality is considered not so much a consequence of heredity and environment but as a deliberately chosen sin, and as a consequence some congregations insist homosexuals either change their stated sexual position or alternately leave their congregation. Other churches will refuse communion to those who are divorced or will disfellowship those have not signed up to accept full membership which might for example include passing membership tests to establish minimum key beliefs and/or accepting various rites like baptism by immersion.
Perhaps for those prepared to identify heretics it would be salutory to remember that among those once labelled as heretics there were those whose heresy was thinking the Bible should be translated into other languages. So for example, as it happens, in my church the notion of having the scriptures translated into our own language is now assumed to be commonplace and even essential . Perhaps we could do with reminding that some of the first people who had the Bible translated into languages like English were declared heretics by the Church of their time and burnt at the stake.
The church back then did of course have a reason for preventing translation to the common language of the day. Before the Bible was translated, the Priests were seen as the educated class and had the task of being the keepers and translators of the Latin and Greek texts to provide a means of controlling the beliefs of the people on behalf of the Church leadership. Placing the task of reading in the hands of the largely uneducated people of the day risked what the leaders considered to be uninformed decision making. In the time of Henry the Eighth in England the Anglicans were attempting to replace the Roman Catholics and some churches and monastries were destroyed and their leaders arrested or killed.
In Greek the original word for heretic was “hairetikos”. Literally this meant someone “free to choose”. And how ever much we might believe that Jesus taught tolerance and forgiveness ,history suggests that for much more than one thousand years of Church history, group acceptance of Church authority over belief gave very limited tolerance for anyone who dared to believe anything outside the agreed collections of truths that went with each branch of the Church.
Among the trail blazers who started various reforms, many, despite their present status of great leaders, would have been seen at the time to be heretics presenting such strong challenges to accepted beliefs and practices that the religious leadership of the day reacted by calling for violence which seems curiously at variance with the teaching they claimed to be following.
A surprisingly large number of traditional beliefs about Jesus’ birth are not strictly Biblical in that what the majority now appear to believe are not embedded in the earliest versions of the Biblical texts.
Jesus being born of a Virgin is far from established. It is now generally accepted that the prophecy that the Son of God would be born to a Virgin is based on a Greek translation of a prophecy in which the original talked of a Young Girl rather than the Hebrew word for Virgin, which the prophecy did not use. Further, both Matthew and Luke provide geneologies for Jesuswhich include Joseph as the father of Jesus. Surely assuming a Virgin Mother implies no human father which creates a puzzle in that those same geneologies have the descent of Jesus through Joseph as the father. Since Joseph was not the biological father his genealogy is strictly irrelevant. We also note the two very different genealogies in Luke and Matthew trace Jesus’ birth line back from Joseph through a different lines.
When we compare the two genealogies we see that they were in effect symbolic to make two very different points. Luke has the ancestry going back to Abraham and right back to Adam, taking care to place Jesus in the prophetic line, whereas Mathew names the ancestors as the line of significant kings. Matthew reinforces the royal position of Jesus by having the star over the birth place shine its light on Bethlehem, and then having astrologers following the star bringing significant gifts while an enraged and jealous King Herod on hearing their mission panicked and ordered a mass killing of infants to remove the possibility of rivals.
The census data tells us that a diminishing number care about the Christian beliefs and I assume this means smaller number who are likely to care about the typical heresies that used to infuriate the supporters of traditional church traditions and beliefs.
On the other hand Christmas itself is still a major holiday for the population of most Western countries and there are certainly plenty of customs which have grown around the season. Gift exchange and Christmas parties are expected with no real thought to the religious significance of such customs. Town Christmas parades, Father Christmas being visited by young families in the malls and the modern habit of festooning the house and Christmas tree with lights and Christmas bling seem entirely incidental to Luke’s parables of Christmas. The notion that we should use the birth as a starting place to give thought to our families and those outside the family who need our care and compassion may turn out to be central message after all.
If the Christmas season is really about drawing public attention to the arrival of Jesus , we need to admit somehow the message is getting lost. On the other hand if the message is more giving a forum to heretics attempting to bring the Christian community back on task, it is not the leaders’ message but our own that might need our attention. Maybe we need the odd wayward heretic to inspire us to choose our own path through the confusion of Christmas.