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A Controversial Christmas Story

Copyright 1999 by Christopher J. Neuendorf

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A "Jesus image contest" for the National Catholic Reporter has recently come to a close. The winner: "Jesus of the People," featuring a dark-skinned Jesus and including in the background a feather, meant to represent American Indian spirituality, and a yin-yang, symbolizing perfect balance. A woman was used as a model, so as to add a "subtly feminine dimension."

This piece of art was expected (and intended) to be somewhat controversial. I read about the work before actually seeing it, and was expecting something horrid, but was deeply struck by it when I finally saw it for myself. I was not too happy with the pagan elements; as one of my favorite pastors reminded us one Sunday, Jesus did not say, "I am a way," He said, "I am the way," and to combine the Son of God with symbols of "other ways" smacks of sacrilege.

However, the painting defies most previous stereotypes of Jesus that we've become accustomed to, which is something I think we've needed for a long time. It fits very well with a book I've just finished reading, The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey. This book goes back to the raw gospel accounts and tries to piece together a Jesus without the years' worth of smoothing over and domesticating that have been unwittingly imposed upon Him by well-intentioned followers. It reminds me of the artists who spend time restoring old paintings; they scrape away the years' worth of grime and dirt to get to the original masterpiece. The book presents a Christmas story very different from what we're used to hearing, and certainly as controversial in its time as this new painting, "Jesus of the people," is for us.

From the time of His conception to the time of His death, resurrection, and beyond, Jesus' life has been surrounded by controversy. His mother had to bear untold shame for months before giving birth in a barn to the Son of God; His earthly father had to be convinced by an angel not to break off his engagement to his pregnant fiancée! In our present society, the status of "unwed mother" does not seem to mean too much; a pregnant, unmarried girl can get into the National Honor Society, because her state is not considered to be evidence of "depleted moral character." It was a very different story in Jesus' day; back then they took God's law to heart! Mary could easily have been stoned to death. People then, as now, would have had a hard time accepting the fact that she conceived as a virgin.

All in all, the conditions were very different from the standard Christmas cards and warm living room manger scenes. The atmosphere was cold, miserable, shameful, and yet, joyous! Angels announced His birth to the shepherds; wise men bowed down and worshipped Him as King; our Savior was born! Jesus would grow into a Man who would challenge us. He worked "against the establishment," boggling the minds of the Pharisees. He restored the true ancient Hebrew religion by stripping off the veneer of man-made rules and regulations that had obscured it for so long, and by fulfilling its prophecies. Jesus socialized with sinners, the sick who needed a physician. He granted forgiveness of sins, something that surely only God possessed the authority to do-blasphemy! Jesus was such a controversial figure that it led to His death... and on to His resurrection.

May we remember God's wonderful gift to us this Christmas; and His unique, brilliant, and incomprehensible way of accomplishing His purposes!