My mother was an artist. She tried to pass it on to me but it didn’t take. Like so many good things in families, it skipped a generation. She loved Christmas. She took a cracked, hundred-year-old wooden ironing board and painted it so that it looked like Santa Claus.
Together with my Dad, she made a lot of nativity sets. She had a recognizable style. Hers were usually wooden silhouettes tastefully and subtly painted to look three dimensional. She sold most of them to raise money for various projects for her study club. Of all the hundreds of items they made over the years, she only kept a few. One time I noticed that a pig made an appearance in one of her nativity scenes. I commented how that just wouldn’t be the case in 1st Century Jerusalem. She could tell I was missing the spirit of Christmas so she called me a smart-aleck. It was not the first time.
The first nativity scene I remember is not one that my parents made but one they bought. In the mid 60’s, well before my time, my folks discovered, to their dismay, that their young son (my older brother) did not know who the baby Jesus was. So, they promptly drove to the Ben Franklin and purchased a nativity set with the goal of explaining to their three-year-old, who was swiftly slipping into paganism, who the baby in the manger was.
Like the pig that transgressed the rules of manger scenes – this manger scene transgressed Mom’s style. It was kitschy. Joseph and Jesus were blonde. Jesus looked too old for the manger. The shepherds were dressed like cavemen, but the three kings, travelled in style. They looked good. They were diverse too. One’s face was white, another one dark tan, and the third was black. The nativity scene makers may have given Jesus blond hair but the magi looked like the Rainbow Coalition.
Whether it’s one of mom’s, or one with veggie tale characters, or a kitschy one; all nativity scenes are works of transgressive art. Not because they sometimes make Jesus blonde, or because there is a pig in the stable . . .
They are works of transgressive art on a much deeper, more fundamental level.
Transgressive art is art that aims to outrage or violate basic morals and sensibilities. Transgressive art, or music, or writing, or behavior crashes through boundaries.
Some of you may be familiar with one of the more infamous examples of transgressive art: a work by photographer Andre Serrano called Immersion. It has a more common name that I will not repeat. Immersion is a photograph of a crucifix that appears suspended in midair against a reddish and amber background. It is a mysterious image, and some of us may even call it beautiful. One art critic described it as,
“a darkly beautiful photographic image … the small wood and plastic crucifix becomes virtually monumental as it floats, photographically enlarged, in a deep rosy glow that is both ominous and glorious.
Transgressive art is intended to offend or shock; and, at first glance, there is nothing particularly offensive or outrageous about Serrano’s Immersion.
Until, we discover that it is a crucifix submerged in urine. Not knowing that fact, you might find it beautiful, but the transgressive act of submerging a beloved image of Christ in urine disrupts one’s appreciation. Upon discovering how the image was created most react with revulsion. Many have denounced it. Understandably, the Catholic organizations have attempted to have Serrano’s showings closed down.
There are all kinds of transgressive artists. There is transgressive music, transgressive film, and transgressive novels. The novels, American Psycho, Fight Club, and Catcher in the Rye all fit into this category even though the passage of time has made some of them less transgressive, less offensive, than others.
Transgressive is related to the term “transgression” which is a synonym of sin. To transgress is commit some kind of wrong doing. However, the word transgressive when used to describe art, or even behavior, does not mean inherently wrong, at least in the minds of the artists. It is simply different; yet, different to the point of shock.
If you were reading novels in the 50s you might find The Catcher in the Rye transgressive because of Holden’s obscenities and self-destructive attitude. Your parents may have prohibited your reading it. It is one of the infamous banned books. However, if you were reading Catcher in the Rye in the 80s, your parents were just glad you were reading at all. So, transgressive art is, sometimes, in the eyes of the beholder.
It often changes with the passing of time. However, in some cases, it may indeed be a violation of what is simply right or good or holy.
I propose that the Christian story is filled with transgressive behavior. Manger scenes, are works of transgressive art. These manger scenes don’t offend us because we know the story, or think we know it. And, pigs appearing in manger scenes are really not that transgressive. By my count, there are three big transgressive stories in the typical nativity scene.
Transgressive story #1 is Mary. She is, quite frankly, unthinkable. The conventional wisdom of 1st Century Judaism would have been scandalized by this impoverished, unmarried, and pregnant, teen from Nazareth. She is a shame on her family and community. Not to mention that even her hometown is not particularly impressive. Remember, one of Jesus’ asking, “can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Transgressive story #2 tells about the visiting shepherds. We don’t mention them much. But, they were as unthinkable as Mary. They were unclean and I don’t mean they were dirty and covered with sheep-dung. The normal work of shepherd probably made them ritually unclean. They would not be worthy to enter the temple much less come in contact with the coming King and Messiah.
I want to spend more time with Transgressive story #3, the Magi. It’s probably true that they weren’t at the actual manger and probably showed up some time later. However, we don’t really lose anything in the story if we conflate their appearances. These three, if there really were three, may be the most transgressive characters in the story. Here’s why: 1) they weren’t Jews ethnically; 2) they weren’t Jewish religiously; 3) they were most likely from nations that had ruled over the Jews at one point; either the Babylonians or the Persians. (Modern day Iraq or Iran.)
Each of the four Gospels has a different angle on the story of the Messiah. Matthew doesn’t say anything about shepherds or mangers. His angle on the birth of Jesus is wrapped up in the Magi. He doesn’t explain who these people were because his contemporaries would be familiar with the term. They were respected scholars in the fields of astronomy, astrology, medicine, and mathematics. For Matthew, they represent the very best of the pagan world; the un-Jewish, sometimes anti-Jewish, world. Fleming Rutledge describes says,
These travelers from the mysterious East have no Scripture, no salvation history, no covenant, no special revelation—they do not even know the name of the God whose manifestation they seek—but they have nevertheless undertaken a journey which (we can rightly assume) was of great length and hardship. They are led by an astral phenomenon, by their own studies, and by what they have heard concerning a “King of the Jews”.
On the important principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, we may follow the lead of the early interpreters and think of the Magi as representative, not only of pagan learning and wisdom, but also of the power and wealth of heathen nations who come to bow down before the King of Israel. The point is that they were Gentiles, outside the covenant promise.
They were a wee bit transgressive. If the most pious of 1st Century Jews were put in charge of the guest list to the Messiah’s birthday celebration, these uncircumcised pagans would not have made been allowed past the velvet rope.
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t describe the Magi as kings. However, in the early years of our faith Christians began to notice some Old Testament passages that sounded a lot like the Magi which, in turn, led to the tradition of calling them Kings. For example, Psalm 72:10-11, a Psalm about the Jewish King, says,
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
Another one comes from the Isaiah 60 and is also frequently prayed during morning prayer. Some of you may recognize this as canticle #11,
Nations will stream to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Your gates shall always be open;
day and night they shall not be shut,
so that nations shall bring you their wealth,
with their kings led in procession.
So, the reason we call them the “Three Kings” (even though we don’t have any clue how many of them there were, or if they rode camels, or …) comes from early Christians paying attention to the connections between the Old Testament and the New. Maybe there weren’t three and they probably weren’t at the actual manger but, and this is an important but, if we pay attention to why they were there we may end up getting the point of Matthew including them in his story of Jesus.
Take note of this. The passages we just read in Psalms and Isaiah also sound somewhat familiar to a passage from the very end of the Bible, Revelation 21:22-26.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
In the Age to Come, all of the world will bring all its best and brightest, its most honorable, beautiful, and good into the New Jerusalem both as an offering to the Lord and as a celebration of God’s good work. Great music, art, poetry, will be given in tribute to the one who is the King of Kings. Whether it is Christian in its origin or not. All will bring in their own versions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not transgressive art but art and science and craftsmanship transformed by God’s goodness and Christ’s sacrifice, it will all join the pageantry of glorifying the crucified and risen Lord.
But, there is one more point, transgressive as it is, to make clear. The Magi really didn’t know how to worship correctly . . . they worshiped transgressively. If they were good Jews they would have brought a lamb as a sacrifice, perhaps a bull, or doves as gifts to the one who was the Son of God. Moreover, they wouldn’t consider a stable a fit place to worship. They woud have found their way to the Temple, just a few miles up the road from Bethlehem, in the city of Jerusalem. On top of all that, they wouldn’t worship a human child.
Right worship occurred in the Temple not at the feed trough. But, wherever the Magi found him, in a stable or in a human house, they worshiped. In doing so they foreshadowed the events described in Revelation,
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
The great, transgressive art of the Magi, is worshiping the Messiah free from restrictions imposed by the Temple. God used transgressing foreigners to bring proper worship to the infant King because his chosen people would not have known how.
The Magi, finally, include one more transgressive act in their worship. One of the gifts they bring is myrrh. No proper Jewish person would think to bring the Messiah something that bespoke his death. The Messiah was not supposed to die. But, for a reason known only to God and these Magi, they brought myrrh a spice used to prepare a body for death.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Like the nativity scene, Jesus’ entire life is an example of transgressive art. He is crashing through barriers, crossing boundaries, the biggest and most transgressive of all is crashing through the barrier from Divine to human. Although, they brought the myrrh, the Magi may not have completely understood that Jesus could not stay dead. And there, is another great transgressive act. Jesus, shatters expectations yet again, by refusing to remain in the grave.
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies
Now, if God in Christ can transgress from Divine to human, and from death to life, there is no reason why he can’t transgress into our lives. No matter what hole we find ourselves in. No matter how un acceptable we find ourselves to be. No matter how much our transgressions have overwhelmed us.
God most often comes to disguised in our lives. This is another great transgressive event. He comes to us hidden in friendships we didn’t ask for, through inconveniences that irritate, in tragedies that devastate us, and in the silences that we are afraid of.
Finally, God transgresses yet again and comes to us in bread and wine. If he can be born human in the filth of animals why can’t he meet us in this odd, holy moment of communion. What is God thinking?
Lord of Life, we pray that you would continue to transgress the barriers we have erected that keep you at bay. By your Holy Spirit move our hearts to meet you in the midst of our lives, disastrous and disappointing as they may sometimes be. Amen.