Tag Archives: Christmas

30 December – Born of a woman, born under the law

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Christmas 1
30/12/2018

Galatians 4:4-7
Psalm 8
Luke 2:41-52


Our Galatians reading this morning has been carefully cut by the lectionary to turn it into something which makes it look like a “Christmas” text. And so we hear Christmassy things for the last Sunday of the Christmas season: “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman”.

Yet St Paul has no interest in Christmas as we know it. What he is interested in is Jesus’ relationship to us. And this ought to matter to us as well because unless there is something intrinsic connecting us to Jesus of Nazareth then there is no point in the church honouring him in the way that it does, commending him to the wider world, or celebrating Christmas.

Although Santa is now presenting as a serious rival, the dominant image of Christmas remains that of the baby. We like babies. We once were babies! Christmas reminds us that, as we once were helpless, and innocent, so also was Jesus, and so the sentimental song “When a child is born” has been added to the collection of what is likely to be featured at a Carols by Candlelight or be piped into the background to set the mood in supermarkets. As Jesus was once a tiny bundle of possibilities, and the focus of great hope for his parents, so were we and our babies. When Paul says of Jesus “born of a woman”, we can hear him saying that Jesus was as we are: he was one of us.

Paul goes further, however, in his statement of what Jesus shares with us. Not only is Jesus said to be “born of a woman”; he is also “born under the law”. Here Paul moves beyond basic biology and baby-induced sentimentality to stir us up a bit about our understandings of ourselves. “Born under the law” adds a dimension to human being which is less certain for many of us. It’s not that Jesus’ being born under the law makes him less human; it is rather that we mightn’t be so sure that being “under the law” is a necessary part of the description a human being.

‘Law’ here is not merely the divine instruction but what it becomes in our hands, and what other wisdoms and ways of being also become. To be “under the law” in Paul’s sense is not yet to be free; it is to be bound by something which limits us and not yet to have received the freedom still held in trust for us.

Yet while we know that we all begin ‘born of a woman’, for many in and out of the church it is scarcely believable that being ‘under the law’ in this way is also part of what it means to be human. Is not the freedom of the individual central to our modern self-understanding? And so Paul’s further suggestion that we are “slaves” – and that we move from being slaves to being children of God on account of Jesus redeeming us from being under the law – also doesn’t really fit our perception of ourselves. 

But by reading more broadly around the short section we have heard from Galatians today, we can bring Paul to bear on our own thinking about how we are constituted. The verses which follow on from what we’ve already heard are not so Christmassy, but matter at least as much:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods [that is, ‘enslaved by law’]. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly powers [literally: ‘elemental spirits’ (NRSV)]?

Paul’s particular issue with the Galatians is that they had found a peculiar freedom in Jesus – a kind of human maturity – which they were now giving up.

This freedom involves a shift from living under law: from knowing the rules, being subject to them and abiding by them (or not!), to living out of grace. Paul describes this shift in a little twist which passes almost without notice: “now…that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” The twist is very important.

For us the question is usually about who knows God, or does not know God – who knows the rules, who has measured where God fits in and how we fit into God. This manifests itself at this time of the year with concern in churches and in newspaper opinion pieces about such things as the “true meaning of Christmas” and who does or doesn’t know it and so does or doesn’t know God (or doesn’t need to know God). This is ‘under the law’ existence – human being as argy-bargy. But for Paul the critical point is God knowing us, or not knowing us.

God knows you, Paul declares; God has your measure, and this before you imagined that you measured and knew God. God knows those of us “born under the law”, enslaved to influences and powers even before we know ourselves as such. In this, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The good news of the gospel is that God know us in this way, and yet loves us. On Christmas Day we sang of Jesus, ‘lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. This is scarcely acceptable language today for a couple of reasons but that line sums up Paul’s point here, with the emphasis falling on ‘womb’ (Paul doesn’t seem to know or be interested in the story of the virginal conception). In the carol and in our reading today, ‘womb’ is a metonym – one aspect of our common humanity which stands for everything which we have in common: our biology and our broken, ‘under the law’ existence. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus – True God of true God, light of light eternal – is born at all into our human messiness.

What all humankind has in common is not merely our biology but lives lived imperfectly under the law, and so lives enslaved, under the curse of death through sin. For Paul, then, Jesus-born-of-woman has in common with all humankind that he too came to stand under the curse of sin – “born under the law”.

There is, of course, a danger here that the whole sin-thing can be over-emphasised, as it has been too often in the church’s history. The bad news here – that we might be enslaved in this way – is not the starting point but a kind of end point: it is because a light has already shone for us that we are able to look “back”, as it were, and see clearly now how things were before the light was there, how law enslaved us, how we misuse it to try to save ourselves, how we were unfree.

The good news is that this light shines and reveals not to condemn but to liberate. God has already loved us in our very worst moments, and even in what we think are our very best moments but in which we are sometimes the most tragically deluded. Being Christian is a matter of learning to know ourselves as God knows us – less than we ought to be but loved nonetheless. It is only when we know ourselves so loved that we can know that “freedom of the children of God” which begins with being set free. It is only those who have been set free in this way who can become forces for liberation themselves.

The freedom of the children of God is that they know that God knew them before they knew God, that God’s knowledge of them created no barrier to loving them, and that this means they need not be trapped by their own poor assessments or grand assessments of themselves.

Instead, they may move into the future open to all possibilities, great and small, confident in God’s naming them and owning them as his children.

May this freedom reign in the hearts of minds of all God’s people this Christmas season, and always!

25 December – Extraordinary Ordinary

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Christmas Day
25/12/2018

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Luke 2:8-20


The shepherds say to one another: ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing.’ As their journey was a response news of an extraordinary thing, so also is our gathering here this morning.

And yet, if we give it more than a moment’s thought, it is less clear than we might assume just how the birth of Jesus is extraordinary, for the extraordinary is elusive.

We encounter many extraordinary things in the world: the 10 year old musical prodigy, the resolution of the latest smart phone camera, Brexit, the terrorist’s bomb, 5 prime ministers in eight years (not necessarily in increasing order of extraordinariness!).

Yet, what we call extraordinary is typically something indeed out of the ordinary but on its way to being forgotten or to becoming ordinary. There are two things typical of such occurrences.

First, the extraordinary is typically distracting. Violence, political upheaval, talent and beauty cause us to turn aside from what normally commands our attention.

The second thing about the extraordinary is that it is typically fleeting. Either it recedes into the past – becoming a mere memory – or, perhaps more commonly, it remains with us and becomes the new ordinary. Terrorism is extraordinary, until we grow used to walking around the concrete blocks intended to keep weaponised trucks away from crowds. So also for the decay of political stability, the presence of the precocious talent or the ever-improving capacity of modern gadgets. If there is anything new under the sun, it is not new for long.

These two characteristics might permit us to speak, then, of an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ – the extraordinary as it ordinarily works.

It’s a bit of a mind-bend to try to think the ordinary extraordinary but the point here is that if this is how it works – if the glory always fades – then we do better not to speak of Christmas as something ‘extraordinary.’ Or, at least, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’, are less impressive characterisations of Christmas than we might imagine.

The heaviness and difficulties which seem to overlay our cultural experience of Christmas arise from the attempt to hold onto the fleeting extraordinary, to drag it from its receding past, and to retain it by locking it as an ever-returning calendar event. Thus we make the extraordinary into the ordinary, and empty it of anything which could make a difference.

What, then, breaks through the ordinary? The answer is twofold: first, nothing breaks through the ordinary and, second, God does. This is not to say that God and nothing are the same; it is to say that the ordinary is what God finally aims at. God does not break through the ordinary but rather embraces it.

We are generally not very impressed by the normal, although this is scarcely new. When Luke wants to give substance to the birth in Bethlehem he does not just say what has happened; he has a lead angel with a heaven-wide backing choir make the point to the shepherds. This is impressive – extraordinary – but what then do the shepherds expect to see when they get to the stable?

I found myself recalling during the week the opening scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Some of you have probably not seen this film for the sake of piety, though others of you would likely say that it was for piety’s sake that you have seen it (even numerous times!).

But for information, or as a reminder: the film begins with a night sky, across which travels the Star of Bethlehem. On the horizon we see the Magi (the three kings ‘of orient are’), whom we follow through the streets of Bethlehem to a stable where they find and kneel to worship a child in a manger and present their gifts to the child’s mother. (In all this the film mixes up the biblical story but the whole thing is Christmas-card correct). They then take their leave but very soon return and snatch back the gifts, for they have seen down the street another stable – but now one glowing with heavenly light – and they realise that they’ve visited the wrong place.

We get the joke because we’ve seen the Christmas cards and the icons and the stained glass windows and the sentimental life-of-Jesus films with their halos and attending cherubs and angel-choir soundtracks. But the thing is – if the story is true – the wise men should not been able to tell the baby Brian and the baby Jesus apart. Certainly Brian’s mother could scarcely be accused of being ‘full of grace’ but Mary is not the measure of Jesus in that way, either.

And so the shepherds, to whom the news of the birth of a saviour is extraordinarily delivered, trot off to see what any one of us sees in response to news of a birth – a baby. There is no heavenly light and no halo. Whatever a first century Palestinian nappy looked like, there were likely a couple of them waiting for service and we can rest assured that there is little truth in the suggestion that ‘the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made’. It is just… so… ordinary.

And this ordinariness is perhaps the way we need to recast the representations of Christmas as ‘extraordinary’. Halos and miracles make little impression in a sceptical and cynical age like ours. Ours is a blockbuster culture, which is to say that we have tamed the extraordinary. A choir of angels would still impress us, but we would finally turn it into a screen saver or a ring tone, and then hang out for the even more spectacular sequel.

And yet our hunger for the extraordinary, and our capacity to consume it in this way, leads us further and further from ourselves and the potential fullness of the lives given us to live. For we – most of us – are not extraordinary: our lives are not movie scripts, our decisions do not shift the course of history, our highest achievements will scarcely leave a mark. Our fascination with the extraordinary is an escape from who we are.

Yet this is the un-extraordinary normal into which Jesus is born, the ordinary he takes on. It is this normality which causes such great offence when he begins to wax larger in the religious awareness of those around him. ‘Who is this? Where did he get this from? Is he not one of the local boys?’ More profoundly, the question here is, How can the things of God be so ordinary?

If our usual experience is with an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ which eventually recedes or becomes a new ordinary, in Jesus we see the reverse: an extraordinary ordinary.

Jesus’ achievement is just to be a first century Palestinian Jew, an achievement which begins with his being a first century Palestinian Jewish baby. This is the ‘ordinary’.

The ‘extraordinary’ is that he does this ordinariness in such a way that God intersects via that very humanity. The ordinariness of Jesus is not something which leads him away from God, but the way in which he meets God and God meets him.

The glory of God in the story of Christmas is not in the distracting angels or halos. The glory of God is the living human being at its centre, an ‘ordinary’ which will be extraordinarily done.

his extraordinary ordinary is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

The gift is a human life in which the limitations of a particular space, time, culture, language, gender and social status become not mere limitations but the outer form of one person’s freedom to be a child of God.

The invitation is to take this extraordinary life ordinary as our own, to have in ourselves the mind of Jesus: to be free of the need to gild the lily which each one of us is, free of the need to grasp after a glory which seems brighter than us.

For what we are is enough to be magnificent, if we receive it from God not as a burden to be overcome but as a gift to be unwrapped and lived.

Every ordinary baby is a promise of great things: the promise of Godly things in human things – the promise of the glory of God. What is extraordinary about the baby in the manger is that the promise which every ordinary baby is is actually kept in his case: here is a human being fully alive, and so the very glory of God.

This is the gift of Christmas, and its invitation.

Let us, then, with the shepherds, ‘go and see the thing which has taken place,’ receive it as our own and, by the grace of God, begin to become it.

Amen.

25 December – Christmas against Christmas

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Christmas Day
25/12/2017

Hebrews 1:1-4, 5-12
Psalm 98
John 1:1-14


With Christmas comes, without fail, the poignant reflection piece of the newspaper columnist.

The first I read this year was by Amanda Vanstone. It was a disappointment and the others didn’t improve much from there. But then what else could these pieces be if indeed there is any truth in what the church confesses about the baby in the manger? For we confess that everything we desire is given there. It is scarcely believable, but nonetheless it is the point of being in church on a Monday. So if, with Vanstone, most of the rest of the world, and most of the church most of the time – if, with all, we turn away from that gift, we must then find something to give ourselves. What that self-gift might be is precisely the subject of the Christmas reflection piece: the discovery, the revelation, of the stillpoint in the chaos. If the church is hypocritical and irrelevant, if family traditions are too burdensome or evaporating before our eyes, if gift-giving is corrupted by materialistic commercialism, if death looms to overshadow our celebrations, then how desperate we become for the one thing which will transcend all of this. Where is the infinite thing, beyond the failure of our best efforts, our ideals and our dreams, which will meet our yearning for something solid and reliable and enduring? It will not be found in average newspaper Christmas reflections. These, like all exclusively human endeavours, merely propose more that we can do for a better experience of the world. And they imagine that, for the first time in history, this new utopia will not sink beneath the waves of moral failure, our failure to do. The poignancy of such reflections at Christmas (or any) time is in their necessity – for they speak a truth – and in their hopelessness, for they cannot realise any further truth.

As a way towards the answer of Christmas to all our disappointment with Christmas, a reading from the Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern here is what a believer looks like; this believer he names “the knight of faith,” in the sense of “champion of faith.” What features distinguish her from anyone else? How does the “heavenly” manifest in the way he conducts himself in the world? How does the longed-for infinite occur in the desperately finite?

“I candidly admit that in my experience I have not found any reliable example of the knight of faith… People commonly travel around the world to see rivers and mountains, new stars, birds of rare plumage, queerly deformed fishes, ridiculous breeds of men … and they think they have seen something. This does not interest me. But if I knew where there was such a knight of faith, I would make a pilgrimage to him on foot, for this prodigy interests me absolutely…

“As I’ve said, I have not found any such person, but I can well think him. Here he is. Acquaintance made, I am introduced to him. The moment I set eyes on him I instantly push him from me, I myself leap backwards, I clasp my hands and say half aloud, “Good Lord, is this the man? Is it really he? Why, he looks like a tax-collector!” However, it is the man after all. I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether he shows any sign of the least telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which be­trays the infinite in its contrast with the finite. No! I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping. No! He is solid through and through.

“One can discover nothing of [an] aloof and superior nature … He takes de­light in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work… He takes a holiday on Sunday. He goes to church… In the afternoon he walks to the forest. He takes delight in every­thing he sees…

“Toward evening he walks home, his gait is as strident as that of the postman. On his way he reflects that his wife has surely a special little warm dish prepared for him… Actually, she hasn’t, but strangely enough, it is quite the same to him.

“…he is interested in everything that goes on, in a rat which slips under the curb, in the children’s play, and this with the nonchalance of a girl of sixteen. And yet he is no genius, for in vain I have sought in him the incommensurability of genius. In the evening he smokes his pipe; to look at him one would swear that it was the grocer over the way vegetating in the twilight…

“And yet, and yet—actually I could become furious over it, for envy if for no other reason—­this man has made and every instant is making the movements of infinity. …he has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world, and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher, … as though the finite life were the surest thing of all.

“…He constantly makes the move­ments of infinity, but he does this with such correctness and assurance that he constantly gets the finite out of it, and there is not one moment when one has a notion of anything else.

“It is supposed to be the most difficult task for a dancer to leap into a definite posture in such a way that there is not a second when he is grasping after the posture, but by the leap itself he stands fixed in that posture. Perhaps no dancer can do it—that is what this knight does.

“…to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian—that only the knight of faith can do—and this is the one and only miracle.[1]

Kierkegaard points us to a humanity which lives the freedom of the eternal and yet looks just like an ordinary piece of the world: the one and only miracle. But as a miracle, it is beyond us. This is the pathos of all exhortations to do better at Christmas time, or any time: only a miracle will do, and we are not miracle workers.

Yet this is precisely the miracle of Christmas.

The church has long spoken of the “incarnation” of God in Jesus, imagining for the most part that there would have been something about him indicating that he was different – Kierkegaard’s cranny through which the infinite peeps. Even the Scriptures do this in their Christmas narratives, trimming the story with glimpses of heaven: a virginal conception, choirs of angels and a star of wonder with royal beauty bright.

Yet to say Jesus was human is to say, with Kierkegaard, that he was solid though and through, that he was in every respect like us – unremarkable but for the way in which he met God and God met him. This meeting was the play of the finite and limited with the infinite and unbounded such as Kierkegaard describes. What we’ve come to call the “divinity” of Jesus was evident only in his extraordinary humanity, which was his extraordinary meeting of God – for what meeting God does is cause the world to be itself. Our poignant Christmas reflections spring from the experience that we are not ourselves, and exhort us to perform the miracle of creating ourselves.

But for us to be ourselves is for us to be relieved of the burden of performing miracles, relieved of the requirement that we make real for ourselves the sublime in the midst of the mundane, relieved of the demand that we cause the infinite to be visible through some cranny.

This is incarnation, and sacrament. This is Christmas against Christmas: gift against our tired exchanges, grace against hard-earned favour, aid against wearing demand; the infinite in the finite, dwelling among us and us invited to dwell in it.

In the beginning was the Word, John writes.

In him was life, and the life was light.

The Word became Flesh. And we have seen his glory: the glory of a human being fully alive.

Would this not be everything we need? Do we not long to be our very selves, and yet to be located in, connected to, part of the whole – the more than us – but not overwhelmed by it?

Christmas marks just such a humanity as the gift of God in Jesus, whether under a crown, on a cross or in a cradle, whether with sceptre, under scourge or in a stable (TIS 321): the miracle of a leap of life expressed in a mere walk, the sublime in its natural habitat: our ordinary.

Christmas would give us heaven because it would give us the world, each without poignant loss.

Now, and in the year about to begin, let’s take them both.

***

[1] Largely drawn from the translation of Walter Lowrie (Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Doubleday 1954, p49ff), although emphases added and language “adjusted” for a modern ear, with some guidance from Robert Payne’s OUP translation (pp.48ff).

LitBit Feature – Advent and Christmas

LitBits Logo - 2Advent and Christmas. The word “advent” comes from a Latin root meaning “coming” or “arrival”. The length of the season has varied at different times, but is now generally observed over the period of the four Sundays prior to Christmas and has been considered the beginning of the liturgical year since the 9th century. Advent was originally developed as a preparation for the celebrations of Christmas – the arrival or coming of Christ. The season, however, has also come to be a period of reflection on the church’s expectation of a “parousia”, or “second coming”, of Christ. Like all seasons of the Christian year, Advent and Christmas are caught between Easter and (the following) Good Friday. It is in the brilliant light of Easter that Christmas takes on its hopeful significance, and it is the journey from Christmas to Good Friday which fills out our understanding of the one who has come, who will be lost, and who we will meet again. Being seasons of Easter, Advent and Christmas are gospel-seasons of unexpected life out of death. Christian hope arises not out of our desperate need and waiting, nor from the natural potential of a newborn baby, but when both need and potential are flouted by a God who saves us by subverting our understanding of what we need and might become. Advent is not hopeless, nor Christmas optimistic, but are seasons for remembering a future we could not otherwise envision but towards which God draws us, sometimes in spite of ourselves, but always to our benefit and to his glory.

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