Monday, December 26, 2016

The Folly of Christmas

Yesterday was Christmas Day. Just like five years ago it was Sunday, an especially good day for family and friends to get together and to enjoy a festive time. But, oddly, Christmas on Sunday isn’t a particularly a good day for churches.
Most churches had scaled back activities yesterday, and some even had expanded Christmas Eve programs and no services on Sunday.
A foolish claim?
This article, though, is not about the folly of Christmas Day being on Sunday. It is about the folly of Christmas itself—and I am writing this partly as an extension of my previous blog article titled “In Praise of Folly.”
When you get right down to it, isn’t the Christian claim that God Almighty chose to send the Savior of the world as a baby born in humble circumstances in a sparsely settled place in the world a rather foolish one?
Walking where Jesus walked
In the summer of 2015, I went with my daughter Karen to Israel/Palestine. Our first time there, we greatly enjoyed traveling in a rental car from Tel Aviv to Nazareth—and then to Tiberius on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum on the north bank of that beautiful sea, down the east side of that sea to the Dead Sea, and then on to the fascinating city of Jerusalem.
Our time in the “Holy Land” was certainly interesting and enjoyable. For me, though, it was not a time of great religious impact—in a positive sense at least.
People who lead, and especially tourist agencies who sell, tours to Israel encourage people to join in their “inspirational journey” in order to have a “life-changing” experience by “walking where Jesus walked” (words from a travel website).
That wasn’t exactly what I experienced.
I visited the Church of the Nativity, the large, ancient building over the place in Bethlehem where Jesus supposedly was born. We also visited Nazareth Village, a reconstruction of what Jesus’ boyhood neighborhood looked like—and quite near to where he probably lived.
At Capernaum we walked on the seashore where Jesus called his first disciples. We then drove up the big hill north of that small town to where Jesus delivered what is called the Sermon on the Mount. Later that week we saw where Jesus was crucified and visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site where Jesus was buried and then resurrected three days later.
The foolishness of God
It was particularly in Nazareth and Capernaum that questions began to rise in my mind. Why would God choose such a remote, provincial, unsophisticated place as Nazareth to be the Savior’s hometown and an insignificant, out-of-the-way town like Capernaum to be the place for him to begin his ministry?
An even greater question is this: Why would Christ become a human being at all? 
As Erasmus expressed it in The Praise of Folly, Christ “became a fool when taking upon him the nature of man” (Wilson trans.; Kindle loc. 1256). The reference there, of course, is to Philippians 2:6-8, the basis for what biblical scholars refer to as kenotic theology, which explains the eternal Christ emptying himself to become a human.
The Apostle Paul’s answer, though, which Erasmus also quotes, is this: “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Yes, it was through the folly of the first Christmas that the Savior came into the world. On this day after Christmas, we each one are challenged to grasp the great significance of the “foolishness” of Christ’s birth—and to live our lives accordingly. 


  1. Yesterday my pastor began the worship service with related words by César García, the general secretary of the Mennonite World Conference.

    García wrote,

    "Crazy… There are convictions of the Christian faith that simply seem absurd. To think that the creator of the Universe – God Almighty – took on human form and became vulnerable before us! To believe that God Almighty was born in one of the most abandoned, poor and ignored places of the world during the first century of our era! To believe that God chose a manger in a tiny hamlet over a palace in a great city! Crazy… it seems crazy​."

  2. A few pastors across the planet, including Leroy's, were also brave enough to raise the question: Do we need to take the birth narratives as historical in order to be Christians? Having read a number of scholars this past year, some Christian, some not, who don't take Matthew and Luke's Christmas stories as history, I can't help turning that question over in my mind during this season. The meaning of the birth narratives — the humble circumstances, God breaking into the story of Israel and the story of the world — are clear enough, and true enough, either way, for the Christian. Praise be to the God who cares for the poor, who wants us to know that final power is not left in the hands of the imperialists, who conquers evil with the weapon of love! Foolish indeed.

    1. Interesting comment about historical narratives. Several Biblical scholars have noted that Jewish writers of the Old Testament exemplify the philosophy of that time which was to write about philosophies rather than being focused on historical facts and documentation like we are in the 21st century. Hence, much of the Old Testament is allegorical rather than historical, a fact lost on many evangelicals who take the Bible as a literal translation of historical fact and base false beliefs on the "history" in a non historical Document. Add to that the fact that the Gospels were written 80-120 years after Jesus' birth by Jewish and Greek authors thus raising the question of the accuracy of the accounts, and again we must realize that the importance lies not with the historical nature of the Bible, but rather the message behind the story.

  3. I was looking again at an "evangelism" tool I developed and used in the past to communicate the "gospel" to those who do not know my God. The key points are of an almighty creator God, the sinners of His creation who are trying their best to reconnect but are failing in the process, and Jesus (son of God) who is executed on the behalf of those seeking to reconnect.

    God has not changed, but I have in my sojourn. I have become much more eastern in my orthodoxy. Had humanity not fallen, Christ (son of God) would still have come, for the goal was to bring us into a full relationship with Him and to be his bride. A love story for His creation, which became a sacrificial love story - much more than a story of execution on our behalf. The fullness of Incarnation (living among us), Sacrifice, Resurrection to life again, Ascension into glory, and the promised return. The story is so much more than a cross and studying the Bible (or saying some magic words and getting wet). He did not come for the kings or the poor - he came for all, and in proof for us, he fulfilled the prophecies he gave - not just the Hebrew prophecies.

    May we seek not only to believe in Him, but to become like Him, and be used by Him, for His glory - both now and forever. Marana Tha! (The foolishness seems to go both ways - but the story is one.)

    I am grateful for the feasts and the fasts of the Church which remind us of these things. But this particular one, the Incarnation, is so key to the story - regardless of the celebration date.

  4. Canadian Thinking Friend, and close personal friend, Glen Davis, shares these comments:

    "I found this blog very interesting. I once preached on the Foolishness of God and invited people to think of what they would say to a pair of aliens who landed on earth (think 'The Arrival' – a fascinating film) and walked into a Christian church and asked what this place was for. The conversation leads to telling them about a God who became a poor, vulnerable baby and eventually died on a cross, etc. Then one alien says to the other, 'Let’s go. This planet is obviously inhabited by beings of inferior intelligence.'

    "The folly of God, indeed!"

  5. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago sent the following comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your always interesting observations.

    "Perhaps one message of the nativity stories is that humility is a source of great spiritual and moral strength as the nativity stories stress the very humble origins of Jesus.

    "I recently read Excavating Jesus by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L Reed. It discusses the archaeology of Nazareth. Below is a link to a summary of the book. The authors view Jesus as something of a leftist, so the book can be challenging. It should be noted that many of Crossan's views are controversial."

  6. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet shares these thoughtful and thought-provoking comments:

    "With your travels in mind to that place of conflict and war which I denominate "the so-called Holy Land," you write about the foolishness of the idea of God becoming human. Ancient Greek rational modes (acknowledged by Paul) and Reformation and Enlightenment categories of thought cannot penetrate the mystery of the Incarnation, just as the Creed itself seems absurdity followed by absurdity, and subject to the liberal criticism that focus on the nature(s) of Jesus and his historical circumstances detract us from His teachings.

    "But entering into the claims of the Christian mystery, that Jesus the Christ is both God and human, infinite and confined, unchanging and mutable, omnipotent and vulnerable, glory in the humble, points to the same limit of language the Hindus encounter with 'Atman is Brahman' and the Buddhists with 'Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form' and 'samsara is nirvana.'

    "William Blake (1757-1827) invites us
    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Eternity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.
    --'Auguries of Innocence'

    "Richard Crashaw (1613–1649) writes specifically of the Incarnation:
    Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
    Eternity shut in a span;
    Summer in winter; day in night;
    Heaven in earth, and God in man.
    Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
    Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav'n to earth.
    --'In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God.

    "What we need in our time is a new calculus of limits that opens us to the Infinite practice of compassion.

    "Thanks for giving us the occasion of this blog entry to consider the miracle to which this season points."

  7. And here are comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Even belief in God defies rational explanation, Leroy, certainly in the crazy world were live in and with the experiences we humans have. For that and for Christ’s becoming one of us, we must pray, 'Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.' Thinking believers will naturally end up as doubting Thomases."

  8. A Thinking Friend who is a devout (conservative) Christian wrote:

    "I don`t think it Foolish at All that JESUS came into this world like he did!

    "I think the quote you quoted from 1 Cor. 1:25 that Paul spoke, is the answer and key to why JESUS came as he did.

    "We need to remember that GOD`s ways are higher than our ways and we need to realize that we don`t know All the reasons why GOD acts as he does, but accept them by Faith."

    1. Yes, it is certainly correct for you to write this, for you are a Christian believer.

      In 1 Cor. 1:18 Paul wrote that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" -- and the same thing could be said about the message about Jesus' birth.

      The problem is this: how do we Christian believers convince those who are not believers to take seriously what they see as folly or foolishness?

  9. Leroy,
    What a stupid article! And here you are an educated man, and you not only believe this stuff, but you propagate it too!

    Just "fooling" of course.

    I'm reminded of a paraphrase of Tertullian: "I believe it because it is absurd (Credo quia absurdum)." There are some problems with such a statement--I don't believe everything that is absurd--but as one of those things that brings one up short and forces one to take a second look--sort of like many of Jesus' sayings and parables--I think that it works nicely.

    Part of the problem is that we have domesticated Jesus and the Christmas story. "Little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay." Ah how cute! Many postcolonial biblical scholars (e.g. Richard Horsley, Warren Carter) have shown that the birth narratives--like the Gospels as a whole--carry an anti-imperial message. Caesar? Herod? No, no, Christ the Lord.

    Again, well done, Leroy, I guess I've not said it once, have I? I was trying to be funny at the beginning of my post. Nevertheless, you've "fooled us well," Leroy, sort of like the gospel itself.

    Peace to you and all who read this,

    P.S. And happy Boxing Day to those in the present or former British Empire! Now there's a foolish idea: the day after Christmas we have all of these pugilistic matches. Downright nonsensical!

    1. Michael, thanks for your foolish comments on the blog article (and forgive me for being so slow to respond) -- and, of course, I am just doing a jest for a jest.

      Just today I read, finally, some of the book "Jesus the Holy Fool" (1999) by Elizabeth-Anne Stewart. She writes, "The infancy narratives are filled with absurdity. One would imagine that a Divine Child would be born in the most elevated of circumstances, surrounded by pomp and pageantry, by the symbols of wealth and power . . . . Instead, Jesus was born into illegitimacy, poverty, and exile. . . . Events such as these point to the birth of a Holy Fool, not to the birth of some great king or divinity" (pp. 68-69).

      Then she says, "The infancy narratives confront us with the reality that God's ways are not our ways and that apparent folly can be wisdom" (pp. 70-71).

      I am not familiar with Warren Carter, but I had Richard Horsley's book "The Liberation of Christmas" on my desk last month, but didn't get to make any reference to it.

  10. Somewhere I once read "The truth is born in blasphemy and dies in platitude." I could not find the source online, so the quote will have to remain anonymous for now. What I take from this is that if we know too little about something, it seems blasphemous. If we know too much (or think we do) the truth seems an empty platitude. Where truth works with us is as a challenging mystery.

    We are told we cannot divide by zero, or ask "Why is there something rather than nothing?". Both, however, are wonderful subjects for meditation and experimentation. I once saw a clever "proof" that 1=2. It involved a disguised usage of dividing by zero. Otherwise it was a perfectly sound proof. Only by finding the hidden zero could the trick be revealed. In a similar way, chasing "Why" questions just takes us to more "Why" questions. Up to a point, this can be educational (just ask a three-year old), a little farther it can be entertaining, but ultimately the question swallows every answer until we are left exhausted. Why? Why not?

    Foolishness is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes a gambit in chess looks foolish, even though it is a clever trap. Sometimes the gambit fails, and it turns out it really was foolish. And sometimes a foolish move is seen as a clever trap, and that drives the opponent into a mistake. So, which is the foolishness of God? We know a lot in our modern world, but there is so much we do not know. We understand there are many things we see but do not understand. We accept that we must respect the foolishness of God. Then there are times we do understand some things quite well, and scandalize others by fixing them. Why did God invent the smile? We can have fun guessing. Why did God invent the appendix? So that humanity could invent the appendectomy?

    So what kind of foolishness is the birth of Jesus? I must confess problems with its uniqueness. What politician would run away from a history that has him born in a log cabin and educated in a one-room schoolhouse? Moses and David came from humble origins. I think the more meaningful foolishness is in our commitment to faith, hope and love in a world of raw capitalism and fierce Social Darwinism.

    I once saw a nature show where they were following a herd of deer. One day a deer injured her leg while high on a ridge. As the sun set, the spotter watched through binoculars as a second deer stood guard over her wounded sister, even as wolves prowled around. The next morning the binoculars came out to see if either deer had survived the night. Wonder of wonders, both deer where still standing the next morning. Apparently no one had ever explained the finer points of Social Darwinism to the healthy deer. Such is the foolishness of God.