Okay, these are all truisms, right? Christmas is about Christ. We need to keep Christ in Christmas. Jesus is the reason for the season.
Of course, truisms could not achieve truism status unless they were, to at least some degree, true. And I would affirm the truth in all these statements. Christmas is about Christ. We do need to keep Christ in Christmas. Jesus is the reason for the season.
But the point that I wish to make in this blog post is something that goes beyond the truth contained in these truisms. I want to affirm something more than just that Christmas is about Christ. What I want to emphasize here is that Christmas is deeply about Christ, that Christmas is profoundly about Christ. And one problem that we Christians sometimes have is that these truisms, and the general way in which we often approach Christmas, are very much lacking in—perhaps the best way to put it is—gravitas. To put that another way, even among us who profess the name of Christ, there is a profound lack of understanding that Christmas really is about Christ.
At this time of year, there are any number of Advent devotionals which we Christians can avail ourselves of, to help focus our reflections in the Advent and Christmas season. They may come as printed booklets, as daily deliveries to our email inboxes, or as links on our Facebook news feeds. But I have found that many of these of these devotionals are, in fact, lacking in this gravitas to which I am referring. And to put that in a different, and even more incriminating way, these devotionals are lacking in . . . well . . . devotion.
What typically happens in many of these devotionals is something like this. First, there will be a passage cited from the infancy narratives in either Matthew or Luke. For example, they may refer to how Mary, at the beginning of the Magnificat, in Luke 1:46, exclaims, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The devotional will then go on to commend Mary as someone who gives praise to God and rejoices in the Lord. And then comes the application: “How can you give God glory today? Think of ways in which you can give expression today to your joy in the Lord?”
Or, to give another example, the devotional will refer to how Zechariah failed to believe Gabriel’s announcement to him that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant and that they were going to have a child. And then the devotional will apply the text: “In what way are you not putting your trust in God? What can you do to increase your faith in the Lord?”
Perhaps it seems fairly innocuous, but little by little, day by day, devotional by devotional, we are lulled into a mindset where Christmas is transformed from a narrative about the incarnation of the Son of God, and turns into a story about . . . us.
The great drama of Christmas is changed into a series of statements that have more to do with us than they have to do with Christ:
Don’t be a doubter (like the earlier Zechariah)
Be faithful and believing (like Mary)
Be hospitable (like Elizabeth when she entertained her cousin Mary)
Don’t be inhospitable (like the innkeeper)
You can repent of your earlier faithlessness (like the later Zechariah)
Don’t be afraid (just like the angel said not to be afraid)
Go find the baby Jesus (just like the shepherds did)
Don’t forget to put Jesus at the top of your gift list (like the Magi)
Listen for the voice of God (like Joseph)
Be a ponderer (like Mary)
Shine for Jesus (like the star)
Be good (like the later Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon, Anna, and maybe even the oxen and asses in the stable)
Don’t be bad (like the earlier Zechariah, the innkeeper, Herod, and the soldiers)
And even Jesus is turned into an example whose incarnation we should in some way try to imitate by living “incarnate” lives, rather than his being exalted as the one who, as the very Son of god, very God of very God, took on human flesh and became very man of very man, in an incredible act of condescension and mystery, an act which is completely unique, unrepeatable, and non-imitatable. (For more on this, and on the uniqueness and inapplicability of the incarnation to the Christian life as something to be imitated, see the very fine book by J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, especially the chapter entitled, “Ministry in Union with Christ: A Constructive Critique of Incarnational Ministry”).
And so it is that these Advent devotionals, in their haste and desire to find an immediate application to the life of the Christian, and to make the incarnation of Christ and the nativity story “relevant” to the Christian life, end up turning our eyes away from the true depth of the Mysterium Tremendum, and focusing them instead squarely on ourselves.
To be sure, what the divine Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—did in this act of incarnation was for our sakes. The Son of God, sent by the Father, and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, took on human flesh to accomplish our redemption, to rescue us from our enemies, to bring us into a covenant relationship with the Triune God, and, yes, even in some respects, to provide an example for us to follow.
But first and foremost, the incarnation was an incredible moment in the life of God. And the first act in which we should engage, before trying to draw immediate lines of application to ourselves, and find exemplary ethical motivation for how we can imitate the characters in the nativity story, and even Jesus himself—the first act is to engage in awestruck wonder at the Tremendous Mystery, the incredible act of condescension, the non-repeatable event of a God being clothed in human flesh. Listen to how this hymn does it.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending,
Comes our homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six-winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
Or this hymn:
Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega —
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see
evermore and evermore.
O that birth forever blessed,
when a virgin, blest with grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race;
and the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
evermore and evermore.
This is he whom seers in old time
chanted of with one accord,
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word;
now he shines, the long-expected;
let creation praise its Lord
evermore and evermore.
Let the heights of heaven adore him;
angel hosts, his praises sing:
powers, dominions, bow before him
and extol our God and King;
let no tongue on earth be silent,
every voice in concert ring
evermore and evermore.
Christ, to you, with God the Father
and the Spirit, there shall be
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and the shout of jubilee:
honor, glory, and dominion
and eternal victory
evermore and evermore.
Notice how these ancient hymns of the incarnation do very little, if anything at all, by way of telling us how to imitate the characters in the nativity story, not even Jesus himself; nor do they tell us how to, in some way, “apply” the incarnation. But what they do, oh so well, is invite us to lose ourselves in awe, wonder, and worship; they summon us to be caught up in the tremendous mystery of the incarnation, and not to be caught up in ourselves.
So, you see, brothers and sisters, at this time of year, when we can be quite critical of how the “secular” world leaves Christ out of Christmas, how the world can be caught up in all the “trappings” of Christmas, the cheesy Christmas movies, the garish light displays, the commercialism, and the saccharine sentiments of the season—let us remember that we have our own problems retaining a focus on the Christ of Christmas. Let us slow down the process that goes straight from citation to immediate application and imitation. Let us first of all, “keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand.” For, you see, Christmas really is, deeply and profoundly, about Christ.
December 22, 2015
Good stuff, but I am not convinced. At the end you come around to the place where everyone else lands – our response to what has happened ‘in the life of God.’ You suggest that we slow down, keep silence, and so on, before the Christ.
All well and good, but – as far as I can tell – we simply cannot get away from how we as humans will respond to the Mysterium Tremendum. The real issue (which you implicitly [but inadvertently?] address) is whether our response is appropriate or not.
I would argue that what you suggest we do is but one of many appropriate responses to what God has done; the ones you disparage I think will also have their proper place in the lives of God’s people at some point or other.
Jeff, thanks for these good balancing comments. As I mentioned in the post (admittedly, briefly), there is a place for seeing the characters and Jesus himself as providing us an example. My complaint was that we go to this exemplary aspect all too quickly. For sure, you are right, “we simply cannot get away from how we as humans will respond to the Mysterium Tremendum.” But my point in the post was that the first response should be worship, silence, awe, deep contemplation, more concerned with Christ than we are for ourselves. And I find that oftentimes our devotional materials are actually lacking in devotion, going too quickly from citation to application. As well, many of those responses, which I do not so much disparage as question, are built on this exemplary model, the “imitation of Christ,” when what I would argue is that while imitation of Christ is definitely valid and important, “union with Christ” is more basic and fundamental, and this union needs to be more emphasized before going to the exemplary aspect. This also reflects my preference for biblical-theological, redemptive-historical preaching over the exemplary model. So it is not that the exemplary is invalid or unimportant, but that the exemplary has to have a more solid foundation in the narrative and an appreciation for the fact that the narrative is about what God has done, more than it is about what we are to do.
So . . . we are to follow the example of the magi in worship, or of Mary in meditation, or of Simeon in praising God . . . Fair enough, I can do that 🙂