Dear Nevada Episcopalians,
I write to express my hope that your Christmas season, in all its aspects – church, family, friends, and home – will be a time of grace and blessing, that you know in your souls the serene hope of God’s good news for us.
The Scriptures and the Carols for Christmas are exuberant in claiming that this event makes all things right. Through Advent we have sung of an absent but hoped for God:
O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
In step with nature’s season of the long nights, we darken the room for the lighting of the candle. On Christmas Eve, we will exult:
Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come . . . .
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Or thorns infest the ground. . . .
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness. . . .
We celebrate a sunrise, a dawn, an experience of grace. Like most Episcopalians, I love this celebration. Of all the branches of the Christian family, we are the ones most devoted to the Feast of the Nativity.
But I sometimes wonder two things. First, I wonder if our heads and hearts align. Do we understand what we are celebrating? In the theology of the Western world, salvation is something that happened on Good Friday to pay a debt incurred at the Fall in Eden. In that theology, the birth of Jesus is just a necessary preparation for the real action scheduled for 30 years later. To make such a to-do over Christmas makes no sense. That is part of why the Calvinist Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, banned the celebration of Christmas for the 40 years of his rule; and the brilliant Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon concurred that we should not be so exuberant over the set up for tragedy.
The second thing I wonder is whether we believe our Scriptures and our Carols deeply; or is it a night of just pretending it’s all alright. Agnostic professor Bart Ehrman attributes his disbelief to the disconnect between the Christmas celebration of “Peace on Earth, Good will toward men” with our experience that two thousand years later sickness, crime, poverty, prejudice, and death are just as real as they were before – in a sense, more so. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground.
So what are we celebrating? First, it helps to broaden our theology a bit, to stretch it farther to the East and farther back in time. The great Eastern theologians, the same ones who gave us the Nicene Creed, taught that the Incarnation itself was part and parcel of our redemption and salvation. God in taking on human nature changes it sanctifies our very being. By entering more deeply into our world, God makes it holy. That is why the Creed links salvation to the Incarnation:
For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
he became incarnate of the virgin Mary
and was made human.
And our Eucharistic Prayer says:
When we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death,
You, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ your only and eternal Son
to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us,
to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.
Human life becomes God’s life; God’s life becomes human. The temporal is imbued with the eternal. This is not to deny or diminish the salvific power of Good Friday. Western Theology has got that right; but the power of Christmas – and Easter and Pentecost for that matter – are at least as much a part of God’s great drama of our redemption.
But what about our experience? Can we really believe that something important has happened when so much still seems so wrong in our world? Christians have never claimed that the power of sin in the world is already vanquished. The fulfillment of our hope lies beyond the reach of our mortal lives and beyond the reach of unfolding history. St. Paul tells us that this world is still under the sway of “the powers and the principalities of this present age.” C. S. Lewis says our world is “in enemy hands.” But the end of the story has changed and we are given a foretaste of our destiny in the joy of Christmas. In a novel, the meaning of each chapter depends on how the book comes out. All our present delights and regrets, successes and failures, take on their meaning from a story; the story of our lives, the story of human history, the story of the whole cosmos has been decisively changed.
At Christmas, we touch holiness. More than that, we are touched by holiness. At a little Episcopal Church in Texas a long, long time ago, I attended my first liturgical worship. I was a teenage Presbyterian with minimal understanding of what was happening. It was not a dramatic conversion experience. But in a quiet way, I touched holiness and was touched by holiness. I didn’t know it then but the course of my life was changed. Christmas after Christmas over the years, I have received grace. My prayer for you is that you will touch the holy and be touched by the holy, and so be drawn closer to your destiny in union with the God and Father of All.