A new love triangle

Ed Smith
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My father used to say that the most difficult sermons to preach were Christmas and Easter.
It's all been said, over and over and over. Where Christmas and Easter messages are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun. Even the Queen has been known to repeat herself on such occasions. Likewise the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the United Church of Canada.
The only person I know to say something different each year is Bill Gates, when he gives the year-end report of his net worth.
The same is true for Christmas columns.
Just the same, I have something different to tell you. You may not believe this, but it happens to be true. An Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand, has erected a large billboard outside the entrance to the church building designed to catch the attention of everyone who passes by.
A Christmas message? Well, yes, sort of. Not the kind you'd expect to see outside a Christian church at Christmas, but there it is, big as life.
The poster shows Mary and Joseph in bed together. Joseph looks rather crestfallen and Mary seems somewhat - I don't know - disappointed or unfulfilled or something. Written across the poster in large letters is this legend: Poor Joseph, God Is a Hard Act to Follow.
Yes, it is something of a shock, isn't it. If some other non-Christian group had erected that sign anywhere on Earth, the Christian world would have gone ballistic. It's the sort of thing one would expect from Salman Rushdie, except it's unlikely Christians would have demanded his head.
Not even the United Church would have dared do that, and they'll try almost anything to get your attention. But those Anglicans, man, are all guts. There's an Anglican church in Toronto that had as the first line on its bulletin board out front: We Are Queer Friendly.

No shock value
Other Half has seen it several times, although not on her last trip to TO earlier this year. Perhaps it was taken down for cleaning. She even called the church to inquire about it and was told that gays were reclaiming the word "queer" for themselves and the church wanted to welcome them.
It doesn't have the shock value it had before the New Zealand sign went up.
You probably have some idle curiosity as to why anyone would want to erect anything as inflammatory and controversial as the Mary and Joseph poster. I certainly do, so I went looking.
The rector of the church - I assume he's still rector - attempted to explain.
Evidently, they want to dispel stereotypes that they say are no longer useful or relevant to the Christmas message. I'd say they've definitely managed to do that, with the biggest stereotype knocked over being the idea that the Anglicans down there actually believe the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ. The rector also said they wanted to get people moving away from a literal word-for-word interpretation of the Bible. In short, don't believe everything you read in Holy Writ.
The reaction Down Under from other denominations has been about what you'd expect, with words like sacrilege and abomination being thrown around pretty freely.
Others are saying it makes you stop and think about the real meaning of Christmas, which is that God showed his love in Jesus, not some sky-begotten child born under questionable circumstances.
OK, so maybe it's the shock value that the Auckland church is after. Try anything to get people out of the old traditional ways of thinking and perhaps come to a new understanding of what it's all about. Is that so bad?

Challenged values
From my reading of the New Testament, that's exactly what Jesus himself did. He challenged the old ways of thinking and did it openly, with no back doors.
"Love your enemy" was pretty far out thinking 2,000 years ago. The mainstream idea was that you killed your enemy before he/she killed you. That was Survival 101. David didn't try to hug Goliath, after all. He separated his head from the rest of his body, which in most cases is considered fatal.
If you had put "Love Your Enemy" on a billboard outside the temple in Jerusalem you might be lucky to get away with your feet still in your sandals.
If you went around shouting you should forgive people who hurt you, you would have been flying directly in the face of one of the major tenets of the Jewish religion at that time: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You would not have been popular.
Many Christian people have problems with the concept of the virgin birth. Most won't say so publicly, but a few will in private. They wonder why it's necessary when Jesus himself seemed to renounce the idea of being godlike.
But it's one thing to say so privately or in a theology textbook, and quite another to slap people of all ages and all belief structures so squarely in the face with a humongous sign which seems to smack of sacrilege. This isn't the way we normally think of the pure mother of Jesus.
Then again, theology textbooks and private conversations don't do much to change the world. You need big signs as they have in Auckland, or large audiences as in the Sermon on the Mount.
Takes all kind of courage to do these things, you know. Those who do, get roundly criticized, whipped and jailed and sometimes crucified. The rest of the world looks down on them and calls them all manner of nasty names.
We celebrate Christmas as the birth of one who did just that. Challenged the status quo, shocked people into new ideas and revolutionized human attitudes and behaviour. Merry Christmas!

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale. His e-mail address is edsmith@nf.sympatico.ca.

Organizations: Anglican Church, United Church of Canada, Christian church Auckland church

Geographic location: Auckland, New Zealand, Toronto Jerusalem Springdale

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