“Was Jesus gentle?” William Blake asks in his poem, The Everlasting Gospel. “Was Jesus chaste?” he adds.
The prophet of south London is turning his ire against the image of the Christ Child that dominates at Christmas. No crying he makes? “Wake up,” Blake cries! Read the Bible. “The Vision of Christ that thou dost see, Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy.”
He is right. If you read the Biblical stories that are associated with the infant Jesus, a clear conclusion follows. It’s not quite what Brian’s mother says in Monty Python’s, Life of Brian: “He’s a very naughty boy!” But it’s close. Jesus was the kind of kid about whom people would whisper. He is odd and awkward. A difficult child.
His very birth was pretty inconvenient, what with Mary and Joseph unmarried and her due date coinciding with the Roman census.
Then, there was the attention the baby drew from others. Curious shepherds. Pious magi. At least the wise men brought gifts that made him a trust-fund baby. The gold enabled the family to travel safely to Egypt and escape the clutches of another inquirer, the paranoid local ruler, King Herod. This baby smelled devilish to the demonically inclined.
He must have been a pain to his anxious parents as well, given the handful of stories that survive from his youth. There are tales in the gnostic gospels that look like witchery. Apparently, as a boy, he would make model birds out of clay and bring them to life, an ability that mirrors a trick of his adulthood, recorded in the Biblical gospels, that involved cursing fig trees.
The trouble seems to have come to a head when, on the cusp of his maturity, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem. William Blake takes up the story, saying: “When twelve years old he ran away, And left his Parents in dismay.” Three days later, Jesus shows up, impressing the Temple leaders with his erudition. He then rubs salt into the wound, as Blake continues: “No Earthly Parents I confess, I am doing my Father’s business.” Precocious or just a high achiever?
It’s not surprising that candlelit services and dreamy carols suppress the details under a haze of sentiment. Christmas is supposed to be a weapon in the parental arsenal, not an excuse for bad behaviour. You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, Michael Bublé sings in the supermarket.
The aura of disturbance and disquiet followed Jesus into his adult life. He was not a child who grew out of early troubles. He remained an accident waiting to happen.
He became a teacher and spoke in parables that confused rather than illuminated. When his inner circle, the twelve disciples, asked him to explain, he said he spoke so that people “might see but not perceive, might hear but not understand.”
Finally, the inevitable happened. Jesus upset so many people that he was hauled before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a man with the power to kill him. He reached the terminus known by other historic figures who were misunderstood, and so fled or died, and yet somehow changed everything. Zarathustra, Socrates, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, the Buddha. So what was it about him?
The word “gospel” is a clue. The Greek, euangelion, means “good message”. An euangelion was proclaimed by ancient authorities as a public announcement. “Caesar has conquered Gaul, so there will be a reduction in taxes!” That kind of thing. The writers of what became the Christian gospels co-opted the word, implying that Jesus’ ticklish life spoke about the existence of a different type of power.
It was displayed when, at the last, he stood before Pilate. Instead of defending himself, he remained silent. He resisted cooperating with the law. He refused to act. He let it be, you might say.
The same approach is found in other axial figures. Socrates was declared guilty by the Athenian democrats, who followed the custom of asking him what he regarded as a just punishment. This was the moment to apologize, beg or go into exile. But Socrates told them that what he offered the city was invaluable. Therefore, the citizens should provide him with meals for life. The suggestion was not warmly received.
The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, was repeatedly invited to fulfil his civic duty and become an administrator. He repeatedly spurned the offer, saying he did more good in the world by staying to fish at the riverside.
Not that this was a modest rebuff. “You can’t bear to watch the sufferings of the age, and so you go and make trouble for ten thousand ages to come!” he retorted. “Are you just naturally a boor? Or don’t you have the sense to understand the situation? You take pride in practicing charity and making people happy – the shame of it will follow you all your days! These are the actions, the progress of the mediocre … But what good are these actions of yours? They end in nothing but a boast!”
I bet Chuang Tzu was no gentle, meek child either.
The good message to do less and listen more is even more objectionable nowadays. Technology and bureaucracy have joined forces with ideals of justice and material wellbeing to power an insatiable demand: work to exhaustion in order to secure life for ourselves and others.
Modern axial figures, like William Blake, see through it. They know that moralizing becomes demoralising. “The Moral Christian is the cause, of the Unbeliever & his Laws,” he concludes in The Everlasting Gospel. It’s time for a reset. So what did he teach?
“The cistern contains, the fountain overflows,” Blake observed. What he means, I think, is that we have assumed the purpose of living is to build cisterns to store, preserve and possess life, when in truth, life is like a fountain that overflows. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus advised. “Give no thought for the morrow.”
Blake said he once met Ezekiel and asked the prophet what lay behind his strange way of life, which included lying still on his side for 430 days. “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite,” the Hebrew replied.
It’s a confusing message. It seems unliveable, for all that it insists it will bring life in all its fullness. But maybe a provocation that promises an alternative, and a child who prompts frustration that might bring change, is precisely what we need.