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Giles Fraser: Christmas is meant to be shocking

19 December 2011

In my experience, cartoonists are a lively bunch. They do tend to like a drink and a good argument. So I was much looking forward to my Christ­mas lunch with Martin Rowson from The Guardian, who is one of the most savage political cartoonists of the day, and a vocal supporter of the British Humanist Society.

Like his great hero, William Hogarth, nobody is spared satire — as exemplified in the podgy, jug-eared, and exhausted-looking por­trait of me he did in the pub. For Rowson, satire is all about bringing down the mighty from their seat. This is how we got on to the subject of his objections to God.

Of course, he does not believe that God exists, and he rejects “super­­stition” in just the way one would expect. But the more inter­esting thing is how he associates God with precisely the sort of high-and-mighty authority that ought to be brought down a peg or two.

My argument is that Christmas does exactly this: that, in a sense, it is the humiliation of God, and the rejection of the idea that God is to be exclusively defined by grandeur and kingly authority. Moreover, to say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. Christmas is a sort of cosmic satire.

He didn’t buy this, of course. But what is most interesting is how many in the Church don’t seem to buy it, either. Too often, we go along with the normalisation of the Christmas story, turning it into a kindly panto­mime about a baby. Familiarity has made it all so uncontentious.

Yet the story of Christmas is supposed to be shocking. “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” is about as offensive an idea to a first-century Jew as you could pos­sibly imagine. One of the guiding ideas of Jewish theology is that the sacred needs to be kept at a safe dis­tance from the profane. Part of the purpose of the Temple is to separate the holy from the unholy, through a series of walls and ex­clusions. Christ­mas is a wholesale rejec­tion of this idea: God gets re-imagined in the midst of the pro­fane.

The fact that this idea has lost its power to shock is the extent to which we no longer understand Christmas. Perhaps it is only Jews who really understand how upsetting the in­carnation is supposed to be. Sub­merged under mountains of Christ­mas sugar, too often we think of the whole Christmas story as being as natural and homely as the birth of a baby boy.

Yet, as the theological traumas of the first few centuries of Christian theology bear witness, God-as-hu­man was a deeply startling thought, and one that took Chris­tians generations to get their head around. It is much worse than any­thing Rowson could dream up — and much more transformative, too.

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