The powerless Jesus of the Christmas Gospel stories offers a tutorial on power in the Church today.
The Christmas tableaux in Matthew and Luke’s gospels are overtures. An overture appears first, but is like a film trailer sampling the main attraction. An acute reader of the Gospels’ Christmas stories will notice that power is central to the Jesus story – and therefore to the following of Jesus.
The expanded story of the gospels is the claim that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. That’s how a little group of Jesus’s followers remembered him in the early years after his death on the cross. Despite being killed, they saw his death as a victory because they believed that he was now living beyond death – risen from the dead. A similar victory over death would be theirs if they believed in him. And that avenue to life was God’s plan for all. Jesus was God’s special agent – in fact God’s son. The crucifixion made sense of their own persecution which was interpreted as a path to glory after the manner of Jesus.
Written about 40 years after Jesus’s death, this was the central narrative of Mark’s Gospel. it gives evidence of this small, struggling, persecuted group holding firm, despite defections, to a story of God intervening to save his people.
Ten or fifteen years later, Matthew and Luke modelled their Gospels on Mark’s. Jesus is always the primary focus as the saviour and Son of God. But Matthew has practical communities to address. Mainstream Judaism was struggling to regroup after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The emerging rabbinic movement was hostile to other factions like Matthew’s. Matthew responds by claiming to be the purest form of Judaism. He plays out his contemporary problems by telling stories of Jesus’s confrontations with the Pharisees. The more powerful rabbis might be winning – but Matthew believed he had the truth. He ultimately lost that battle.
Luke is not worried by the Jewish reconstruction. His world is the Christianity that is expanding beyond Israel’s borders. His community is inclusive of Israel at its best but now including a growing number of gentiles.
Both Matthew and Luke write prequels to their main story beginning with Jesus’s birth. The gist is that it was all pre-ordained by God. An angel (literally messenger) of God tells of God’s plan. His birth is the work of God’s Spirit. The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And all this will blossom from dirt poor beginnings. God’s power is a paradox. Strength in powerlessness.
The theme of the central story is life overcoming death: the loser being the winner; the least being the greatest. This leads the reader to infer that Mark’s and Mathew’s communities were bolstering their courage under threat.
Paul, our earliest source, was writing a little over 30 years after Jesus died. “We preach Christ crucified” was his theme. His followers were most resolute when they stuck together. Faith, hope and love (sticking together) abide. But the greatest of these is love.
Mark wrote around ten years later than Paul. To make his point he puts predictions of his passion on Jesus’s lips. In each prediction the death is inevitable, but rising from the dead is guaranteed. Mark highlights the paradox. The disciples do not understand. They ask for places of honour, but Jesus tells them they do not know what they are asking. Mark’s insistence on this point leads us to guess that there was already jostling for power in Mark’s little community. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant”. Servant/leadership is the go – not power.
Power/leadership is intoxicating. Christianity’s earliest documents show evidence of the trend. I wonder whether even Mark expected his story that servant/leadership was Jesus’s idea would curb the lust for power in his community. He has certainly left Christians with a major source of embarrassment because power has won out over service all throughout Christian history. Strong bishops are ten times more likely to be heroes than pastoral bishops. Once Constantine gave the clergy political power the die was cast. Clergy gradually took over deciding what you must believe and how you must behave. When they got full control, they enforced this ruthlessly.
Once power gets on a roll it is hard to stop. The clergy were the only truth dispensers in Christianity. They raised their status by sacralising clerical leadership. Bishops and priests were not only ordained (ordained simply means appointed), they were consecrated. They were marked by God and raised to a status close to God. They called it an “ontological change”. They taught this – and they believed it themselves. This reached a peak when they declared that the chief bishop (the pope) was infallible in defining matters of faith and practice.
Clerical power has received a heavy blow from Australia’s Royal Commission into sexual abuse.
Clerical power in the church is dysfunctional. It has aided life-destroying crimes. It resents external criticism. It is unaccountable. It is un-Christian but cannot see it. the clerical panoply of mitre, crozier, ring pendant cross, power dressing is on full display. Passers-by shake their heads. Paul said: “when I am weak then I am strong”. Jesus said: “Among you the leader must be like a servant”. And it will not change till the clerical state is desacralized and its power-symbols archived to history.
This is the time to reflect on the Christmas tableau and to take note that it is the powerless Jesus who is, for so many, still the hope of the world.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest who writes a bit