This was a lovely service, with just 20 or so showing up. The light was beautiful, the mood was intimate and sincere. And this was a nice chance for me to explore why I love the liturgical calendar, which is at the center of my current book project. I also had no idea who would show up, so I wrote something I knew my in-laws would find interesting. (They were nice enough to come to both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.)
Luke 2:8-20 ; Titus 2:11-14
When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I attended Whitney Avenue Church of Christ. I’ve been thinking about it, because I will be returning to Yale for the first time in 22 years to take a course on UCC Polity in the spring. Whitney Avenue Church of Christ was a good place, peopled by some divinity students, a world-class professor of New Testament, and some very ordinary folk, white and black. Its name sounds familiar: Church of Christ. But superficial similarities can be deceiving. This was a congregation in the Churches of Christ, non-instrumental. They don’t use instruments in worship because nowhere in the New Testament does it show Christians using instruments. (Now they did some lovely a capella singing in four parts.) In other words, the Churches of Christ movement is fundamentalist. They don’t ordain women, for instance.
Why was I going there, you ask? I put up with the fundamentalism because it was an extraordinary congregation, and it was the closest I could come in that area to a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) church, which is the denomination I would soon affiliate with. I mention them today because in the Churches of Christ, every Sunday is the same. They don’t decorate for special seasons, they don’t seasonally vary their worship, they certainly don’t follow the liturgical seasons like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and so on. (None of that stuff is in the New Testament, they would say.) The sing seasonal hymns, but otherwise every Sunday looks the same. And it raises the question: why should Christmas Sunday be different from every other Sunday?
I could disagree with them more about seasons. I am now more enamored with the liturgical calendar than I ever was before. I like to change just about everything we do to reflect the liturgical season, from the order of worship, to the call to prayer, to the way we practice communion. So in Advent, the whole theme of worship was laying bare our need, and the great need in our whole messed-up world, for some great salvation to come. We were fasting, figuratively speaking, to prepare ourselves for God’s coming, allowing our imaginations to soar, powered by both hope and desperation, so that we would be ready to grasp the mind-blowing magnitude of God’s coming. There is a time to confess that we still need God to come to us, for we are still so far from living in union with God and each other. That is still true this morning, but now is not the time to dwell on it.
Today is Christmas. Today is a time to prayerfully consider that God has already, once and for all, responded to all the desperation of the world with an act both greater than anything that anyone imagined, and smaller than anyone predicted. God took human form, so classical Christian doctrine affirms. There are hints and intimations of such a possibility in the law and prophets. In our call to worship, Isaiah was so enthusiastic about the next king to ascend the throne that he called him “Mighty God, Everlasting Father,” veering into the language of divine kings that was not unheard of in neighboring cultures. But for the most part, as in Exodus, the idea in the Old Testament is that if you were to see God face to face, you would die instantly. The shepherds in Luke come and see, maybe not thinking that they’ve seen God, but neither are they zapped dead. The stories of the birth are fabulous, to be sure; but they reflect the way that those who traveled with Jesus and followed him experienced, in retrospect at least, the presence and power and authority of God in their midst.
This is a big pill for some of you to swallow; fair enough. But while the incarnation of God in Jesus is a great mystery, it needn’t seem so weird. God is infinite, so God is everywhere, all the time. Only a small mind would imprison God in some far away heaven. God is with us, right? So we say. God is at work in our work. God’s spirit moves in us. So why can’t God be present in Jesus? Perhaps the real issue is, why is God so particularly present in Jesus? The trick to the incarnation is that a human form—someone with a name, an individual who speaks and acts for God and who meets an appropriate fate—must adequately express the fullness of everything God is. How does any one person adequately comprehend the love of God that extends to even the least and the utterly lost, but also the justice of God that calls us to complete perfection, God who even charges his angels with error, as Job puts it. In other words, how do you combine infinite love and infinite justice in one person? To believe in the incarnation is simply to believe that Jesus has done this, not because he was just such a good and beautiful baby with hidden super powers, but because he came in the fullness of time when all the expectations of Israel had come to a head, and because his life embodied a kingdom of a different order that led to his own self-sacrifice on the cross, followed by a power of resurrection that carried his identity into the continuing body of the church, and because he promises yet a second coming to bring all things into fullness. Jesus is God incarnate, in short, by giving form to a God that made God present then as well as now, but also not present, thereby encompassing all the richness of the divine that we both can and cannot grasp.
The fundamentalist, like our sisters and brothers in the Church of Christ (non-instrumental), is not comfortable with that “can and cannot grasp.” The truth of God has to be something we can possess, something we can reliably recognize and wield. Is has to be right there in the Bible, and if we just pattern our worship on the Bible, we can be sure we have it right (and sure that others are wrong). So if you get in right one Sunday, it must be right every Sunday. So why not make every Sunday exactly the same?
Well, it’s Christmas, so let me be charitable. They have it half right. I suppose I could say that today is our day to be fundamentalists; but that’s maybe not what you think of when you think Christmas cheer. They have one half of what is perhaps a paradox: God has in Christ both given us something to grasp, they get that, but is also beyond our grasp. And today, Christmas, is our day to celebrate that God has indeed given us something to grasp, or better—something that can grasp us, and hold us; something that can recognize us, and wield us. So today is not like every Sunday. But in becoming present to us in a form we can grasp and identify with today, God only begins to lead us down a path toward greater mysteries and to becoming infinitely beyond what and who we are.
The truth of God is both here and infinitely beyond us. To understand God and conform ourselves to the reality of God is something possible, especially today, but something also exceeding our minds, our words, our capacities. Our relationship with God remains infinitely rich and multifaceted. You can’t sum it up in a formula or a rule, to be wielded with power or enforced with violence, certainly. Our relationship with God is so rich that our lives need to take on a wonderful variety of shapes to reflect that richness. That should be obvious. You can’t even express your relationship with a good friend or loved one without lots of stories, pictures, momentos, and adjectives. A good friendship shows different colors every day, and expresses itself only through varying seasons of life. And so it is with our relationship to God. We need many stories, images, momentos (like baptism and communion), and seasons of life. No one Sunday can do it. But a rich liturgical life, played out from Christmas to Lent to Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary Time and back to its ending and beginning in Advent, goes a long way toward the impossible feat of representing, in a way that makes sense, what it means to live life together before God. And that, dear friends, is why I make such a big deal of liturgical seasons. And why this day is not like every Sunday.
And so this day, Christmas day, we come to the wonderful phrase in the often ignored book of Titus: “For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all.” For those who think matters of God can be grasped and wielded, this phrase becomes the summons to a fight. And so Rob Bell wrote a book a few years ago called Love Wins, arguing that all people are saved. His more standard evangelical colleagues foamed and frothed at this (though it was nothing new, really) and insisted, like the church has too confidently done for millennia, that hell is very real and is populated with the likes of Rob Bell. I don’t think any of them knows what they are talking about, for neither do I. What it means to be saved, united with God eternally, is something we only ever begin to understand.
But today is our day to really embrace and live into this verse from Titus. Let us today affirm the mystery appropriate to Christmas, that in Jesus God has appeared in perfect grace, and has united with all humanity, somehow bringing salvation to all. There is more to be said, but let that suffice for today. And so when you go forth today, let yourself see this truth all around you. Let yourself see the beauty of the Christ child in every child, let grace radiate from every face including your own. Now that is a merry Christmas.