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Fr. Dwight Longenecker, December 17th, 2017
Far be it from me to join the Catholic prudes who are being negative about the Vatican nativity scene. People are grumbling about the naked man who is being clothed as an act of mercy. Some are also creeped out by the dead person being prepared for burial because it looks like a scene from a horror film.
Like most things in the Catholic Church, we’ve been there before. Folks were not pleased at all the naked bodies in Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel paintings, and you’ll see lots of partial nudity or gruesome scenes in plenty of Catholic arworks. David holding Goliath’s severed head? Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the ground with tent stake? For goodness sake, the central image of our faith is that of a naked man tortured, exposed and nailed to an execution tree.
I don’t mind the nudity and gore. I sort of mind that it is bad art–schmaltzy and poorly executed. The figures are stilted and awkward. It looks like one of those tableaus in a third rate wax museum. You could say, “C’mon. This is Catholicism. We’re used to kitsch.” OK, but the Vatican should do better.
Then there’s the problem that they have imposed upon the Nativity scene their own little clever sermon. That is typical 1970s social awareness junk. It reminds me of those churches where they would put sand in the holy water stoops during Lent or those clever folks who put out arrangements of barbed wire and bricks instead of flowers for Easter to remind us about prisoners–or those Christmas cartoons where Joseph and Mary are portrayed as homeless hippies.
But the real problem ( that nobody else seems to have picked up) is not the nudity, the gore or the bad art–or even the sad sermonizing.
Its the theology.
One of the main problems in the church today is what I call neo-Pelagianism. Pelagianism is the idea that you can earn your way to heaven with good works. Neo-Pelagianism is what is otherwise called “the social gospel”. It is reducing the supernatural Christian message to “Let’s all make the world a better place and be kind to one another and give peace a chance.”
The corporal works of mercy are important, yes, and theologically it can be said that they flow directly from the nativity of Christ. Because Christ took corporeal form we are engaged in the corporal acts of mercy. Because he took a human body we care for the human bodies around us. Because he entered this world of matter–matter matters.
I get all that, but a Nativity scene is not a tableau of the corporal works of mercy. The Vatican Nativity worries me because it is placing good works front and center rather than the incarnation.
In fact, the good works in the nativity scene swamp the Nativity–over ride the Nativity and make it take second place. The good works are literally front and center. The nativity of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary is in the background.
The biggest temptation in Christianity today is to make the church relevant by focusing on good works rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. We quietly forget the message of a lost and sinful humanity alienated from God and in need of redemption, and we substitute a religion of helping people, and making the world a better place.
It is easy to think this is just a case of marketing. Folks think it is more attractive and easier to sell a religion of being nice than one that preaches the need for repentance and faith. That is part of the problem, but the real problem is even worse.
Churchmen substitute a religion of works for a religion of grace because they don’t believe any longer in the need for redemption and salvation, and they don’t believe in the need for repentance, redemption and salvation because they are universalists. They think everyone will go to heaven in the end.
So follow the logic. If everyone is going to make it to heaven in the end, what’s the point of all that talk about sin, hell, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? None of that matters is everyone is going to heaven in the end.
And all that is left therefore of the Christian religion is to be kind, preach a sort of bland message that every cloud has a silver lining, look on the sunny side of life and let’s solve the problem of climate change if we can.
So it reminds me therefore of that ill judged slide show that was projected onto the facade of St Peter’s some time ago which was all about climate change and ecology.
That’s all well and good, and far be it from me to be a party pooper and be down on saving panda bears, but when are we going to recognize this false gospel for what it is, call it out, condemn it and remember the Christian faith and start preaching the need to repent of our sins and have faith in the incarnate Son of God who died to redeem the world?