Is the infant Jesus an ally in reducing the cultural influence of Christianity?

Private sector piety is incompatible with faith in the adult Christ

‘Faith’s power in society comes not from any church-state concordat, but from the visible witness of Christians.’ Above,  St. Joseph’s Church, Bunnacurry, Achill,  Co Mayo. Photograph: Frank Miller / The Irish Times

‘Faith’s power in society comes not from any church-state concordat, but from the visible witness of Christians.’ Above, St. Joseph’s Church, Bunnacurry, Achill, Co Mayo. Photograph: Frank Miller / The Irish Times

 

The influential biblical scholar Raymond Brown once produced a slender volume entitled An Adult Christ at Christmas. The title nicely conveyed Brown’s view that the Christmas narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were rooted in, and pointed towards, the adult Christ.

It has, at times, been almost de rigeur to speak of “putting Christ back into Christmas,” and the phrase is, at best, hackneyed. But it is certainly in order to speak of putting an adult Christ back into Christmas.

Thankfully, there is always room for seasonal sentimentality and childlike wonder, but when our celebrations are severed from the adult Christ, they easily lose their bearings. The infant of the crib is all grown up now; he has wisdom to share, and expectations of his followers.

At Christmas, secular society doffs its hat to Christianity. Aside from the commercial reality, there is still a widespread, heartfelt interest in the enchantment of the season. Many people who have little or no faith would happily join with Thomas Hardy in “hoping it might be so” – to quote from Hardy’s wartime Christmas poem, The Oxen.

That said, however, secular interest does not typically extend to the adult Christ, the one who speaks, who counsels and cautions.

A secular, politically correct culture is – for the most part – willing to tolerate the Christ child.

Strategies

But the secular inn offers cold hospitality to those whose mindset is formed by the adult Christ, and who believe that his vision is a blessing for society.

Public Square Christians, those who see that a purely private sector piety is incompatible with faith in the adult Christ, find themselves on a collision course with a culture that is sweetly tolerant of the infant in the crib.

Why is this so? Why the conflict? Why can’t religious folk just take their place in society, along with the various other interests, such as politics, economics, medicine, sport and education?

The reason is that when he grew up, the child of the crib taught his followers to pray and to live the words, “thy kingdom come.” The adult Christ did not “found” a “religion”, in the sense of establishing something that would find a discrete niche in society.

An image Jesus used for his followers was that of a leaven, or yeast, mixed right through society, and causing kingdom values to develop in every aspect of human culture.

What is at issue here is not the pursuit of a theocracy, or a return to an occasionally lamented Christendom. Rather, what is at issue is the reality that mature Christian discipleship simply cannot be confined to religion, ritual, rite or practice.

Such things are expressions of a faith that actively seeks to mould society; a faith that is not for the ghetto, but for the Public Square. It is, after all, at the heart of their celebration of the Eucharist that Christians pray those terribly self-implicating, adult words, “thy kingdom come.”

Special status

Faith’s power in society comes not from any church-state concordat, but from the visible witness of Christians. The church is not a secret society: teachings and practices are open to public scrutiny. Failings are scrutinised as never before, and this is very much to the good.

What Public Square Christians seek is not any concession, but the simple recognition that they will not be keeping their faith and its values to themselves. A characteristic of Christians in a secular culture is the willingness to live by – indeed to proclaim – values that are despised.

In this, they are merely following the lead of the adult Christ.

We need not be Calvinistic: we can enjoy all the emotionality and aesthetics of Christmas. But Public Square Christians know Christ came so that his kingdom might follow. Their Christ-inspired task is not so much to assert their rights within society, as to be a leaven and a blessing.

Rev Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of Ferns diocese.

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