God of the Vulgar
In the latter part of the second century, a pagan philosopher named Celsus attacked the veracity of the Christian religion in his True Doctrine. In part he wrote: “I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called savior, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God. This savior, I shall attempt to show, deceived many and caused them to accept a form of belief harmful to the well-being of mankind. Taking its root in the lower classes, the religion continues to spread among the vulgar: nay, one can even say it spreads because of its vulgarity and the illiteracy of its adherents. And while there are a few moderate, reasonable, and intelligent people who are inclined to interpret its beliefs allegorically, yet it thrives in its purer form among the ignorant.”
For Celsus the problem with the Church was not that Christians believed that a human being could be divine, or even born in a miraculous way. The problem was that they believed that this divine human was from the vulgar and ignorant—unrefined—underclass. The Emperor Augustus could be lauded as a savior and son of God and have divine pedigree, but not a Jewish teacher from the boonies. Jesus’ class was the issue that discredited him and those who became his followers.
Celsus’ reaction to Christianity should remind us of the radical nature of the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, and what they say about the way God works in this world. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and the rest were not movers and shakers in their world. The shepherds who receive the Good News of the savior’s birth were at the bottom of the rung. The story of Christmas is playing out in unexpected places.
What does this mean for us? The Christmas stories invite us to see the world differently. We are trained to think that the real action is taking place in the halls of power and influence. Therefore, we long for power and influence and long to be revered. But if we see the world through the lens of the Christmas story, we see that God is at work elsewhere. He is working through ordinary folk without the resources and connections of the aristocracy, who would indeed appear a bit vulgar and refined to the more sophisticated. Dare I say, God is working through people a bit like us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
So why don’t we let go of our need for power, honor and reputation this Christmas. Let us realize that God wants to be born in our very average, dare I say vulgar lives and use even us to make a difference in our world. If God used Joseph, Mary, Elizabeth and Jesus, then God can surely use us.