Sun 27 Dec
The weird, the wonderful, and the wacky.
I could be describing my Nana’s Christmas pudding. A bit of everything went in. All sorts of fruits, and nuts, and flour, and alcohol, and colourful things, and sweet things, and slightly sour things… It was wacky, weird (I’m sure I tasted chilli one year), and most of all wonderful. It was also theological: one bite and you knew God had come to earth!
The weird, the wonderful, and the wacky could also be a description of Christmas. Consider the characters: the fervent and faithful Mary, the allegedly winged courier Gabriel, the do-the-decent-thing Joseph (once he was nudged by the angel), the stunned shepherds, the mystical Magi with their symbolic gifts; the diabolical Herod; and let’s not forget the four-part heavenly choir singing political lyrics.
You could erect a whopping big sign above this story: “THERE IS NOTHING NORMAL HERE”.
Indeed, that’s what Matthew and Luke, the authors and editors of these nativity traditions are trying to tell us: “Hey, what looks ordinary – you know: poverty, oppression, babies, and all that – is actually, in this case, extraordinary. What looks normal is far from normal! It’s a God thing.”
Sometimes I wonder whether there should be a whopping big sign above the church – faithfully reproduced on all letterheads and logos: “THERE IS NOTHING NORMAL HERE.” Or, more provocatively: “WE ARE ALL QUEER HERE.”
Consider a friend of mine, unfamiliar with Christianity, who took himself some years ago now to a little church on Christmas morning. There were about 60 people there. About 30 more than normal. There were a variety of races represented. Some people spoke loudly, and some didn’t speak at all. Some were dressed in suits and some had their own unique definition of suitable. There were those who sniffed, those who twitched, and those who spent the entire service with their eyes glued to the rafters. My friend wondered what he’d struck.
One of the joys of church can be meeting people you would never normally associate with. The weird, the wonderful, the wacky, shepherds, Magi, and angels…. are all here. As are the doers and the doodlers, the nuisances and the thoroughly nice. Kind of like heaven. Thoroughly queer.
Variety, diversity, uniqueness, and connection makes up, makes us, who we are. We are all normal here because no one is. This is the church, and as St Paul would have said, “We are God’s body”. Or in my Nana’s language: God’s Christmas pudding.
I’ve mentioned the word ‘queer’ a couple of times now, and I know it’s a loaded word. It’s a word that was once, and still is, used in a derogatory manner to describe sexual minorities. It’s also a word that sexual minorities have picked and embraced as a self-description. It’s a word that some[i] use to describe God. Let me explain:
When we think about God we are thinking beyond normative categories. Indeed, to try and fit God into a normal category, or categories, is to constrict and confine that which is essentially beyond every category. God is beyond our wildest imaginings. So, as Christians, we believe in the God that is beyond God. Many of our songs and hymns attempt to talk about God in this way… they talk about a God beyond category and restriction.
Of course, such a God is very hard to handle. So, preachers and parishioners, and church leaders throughout the centuries, have often tried to reduce God to a manageable/management size. In other words, they’ve tried to reduce God in order to get God to behave, to agree with them, to share their prejudices, and to sound like them. We all do this to a certain extent. That’s why we need constant reminders that we have an innate capacity to make God into a puppet serving our needs; and constant reminders to disregard or even destroy that puppet.
Kosuke Koyama once said that the church has tried to make God-in-Jesus into a briefcase that you carry around as an accessory to your life. The trouble is, says Koyama, when you try to grab the handle of this briefcase you get splinters in your palm.
Jeff Hood asks us to think about the word ‘queer’. The word describes that which is different and beyond description… that which is not normative… that which is other…that which is outside of our categories. Hoods says, “You see…God has always been queer. God has always been beyond our categories. [Too prickly to handle?] God has always been beyond our ability to describe. We’ve been arguing for many years about including queer people in the life of the church or not. What we are really arguing about is whether we are going to include God in the life of the church or not.”
Jeff substitutes “Queer” for “Word” in The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel. So, we get: “In the beginning was the Queer, the Queer was with God and the Queer was God.” Jesus shows us what it looks like to be queer. He pushes against the boundaries and borders of acceptable and unacceptable, of religion, race, gender, and culture. The further Jesus pushes into queerness the more he is reviled and shunned.
The definition of God as ‘beyond our ability to describe and contain’ or queer, is also a definition/a frame for understanding ourselves as church folk: we are indescribable and uncontainable, we are therefore queer. We are contaminated by association – association with the queer Jesus and all the queer and wonderful who gather in his name.
Now one of the queerest hymns in the Christmas repertoire we sang this morning. I’m talking about Good King Wenceslas. It’s a hymn for December 26th – the Feast of Stephen. It tells of a king going on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, in order to give alms to a poor peasant. On the journey the king’s page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.
Note the hymn doesn’t mention God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It simply encourages us to bless the poor by doing something practical.
The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935) – Bohemia being part of the modern-day Czech Republic. After Wenceslaus’s death a cult grew – based on his memory. Within a few decades four biographies – hagiographies really – were in circulation. These stories about Wenceslaus had a powerful influence on the period called the High Middle Ages [11th to 13th centuries] in their conceptualization of a ‘righteous king’. In short, the story of Wenceslaus made people evaluate monarchs in terms of piety and care for the poor, and not just in terms of power and military prowess.
You could think of Wenceslaus as a privileged member of his class who, motivated by guilt or pity, shared a few coins or crumbs, from his wealthy storehouse. You could extrapolate further with a Marxist frame and see Wenceslaus as using charity as a means of quietening the revolutionary instincts of the downtrodden and thus perpetuating the power of the elites – the class to which he belongs and to whom he owes his privilege.
Or you could think of Wenceslaus as so uncomfortable, undone, and discombobulated by his wealth when so many were needy, that he stepped outside of convention and prejudice, and did something. He wanted to do something instead of nothing. And that something required physical, emotional and spiritual effort.
Robin Meyers talks about faith as being ‘undone’ – i.e., a disorientation away from one’s usual orientation; not a choosing of a new path, but a choosing to get lost in order to find God. To his peers Wenceslaus was ‘undone’, queer.
Both readings of Wenceslaus are conjecture.
I would like to think that prayer – opening his heart and mind to what A. N. Whitehead called “the tender elements in the world which slowly and in quietness operate by love” – disorientated Wenceslaus’ worldview. Wenceslaus made a decision not to keep acquiring, as if the accumulation of goods and favours can create lasting happiness; but instead, he makes a decision to imagine that he could do something to make someone else’s life just a little better.
And then he trudged through the snow.
[i] Reverend Geoff Hood http://revjeffhood.com/the-courage-to-be-queer-a-message-for-trinity-pre…