Inhabiting the Christian Year: Christmas
This is part 3 of a series looking at the Western Christian year (liturgical calendar). For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
Last time we explored the meaning of Advent---the season of waiting. Now we'll look at Christmas--- the season of wonder. Christmas is a season (12 days), not just one day. As noted by Robert E. Webber in Ancient-Future Time, Christmas "points to the mystery of redemption that took place in the incarnation" (p. 57). Note the two elements: incarnation and redemption. Christmas celebrations within the church should address both for, as noted by Thomas F. Torrance, they are inseparably linked in God's plan of salvation through Christ:
It is in the resurrection that we have the unveiling of the mystery of the incarnation: the birth and resurrection of Jesus belong inseparably together and have to be understood in the light of each other.... We are to think of the line from the birth of Jesus to his crucifixion as the line of the hiddenness of God, the line of his activity in penetrating into our estranged existence, in order to get beneath our burden of sin and judgement and to get inside our death. But there is also a line from his birth to his resurrection which is the unveiling of God, a line that becomes fleetingly manifest in the transfiguration as also in the healing miracles and the other manifestations of Jesus' creative power. (Atonement, pp. 218, 219)
Jesus: the Light of LifeDuring Christmas Season, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus into the world, but also his birth in us. The miracle of new birth (regeneration) results from Jesus' incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension---the full scope of the gospel story, well-represented in this passage:
We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus' sake. For the same God who said, "out of darkness let light shine," has caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation---the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:5-6, NEB)Many churches celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World, in a Christmas eve candlelight service (Christmas Vigil). As with all worship services during Christmas Season, this one views the birth of Jesus in the light of all that our Lord has done and is doing for our salvation. This underscores the importance of seeing each celebration in the Christian year as part of a unified whole---the full gospel story. As noted in the introduction to this series of posts on the Christian Calendar, the annual liturgy provides a powerful means by which we are enabled to inhabit the story of God, thus making it our own. For a GCI Equipper article on how liturgy shapes our worldview, click here.
|The Nativity of Jesus (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
God become man
During Christmas Season we celebrate the mystery of God uniting himself with our humanity as noted in this ancient prayer:
Today is born of the virgin him who holdest all creation in the hollow of his hand; He whose essence is untouchable is wrapped in swaddling clothes as a babe. The God who from of old established the heavens lieth in the manger: He who showered the people with manna in the wilderness feedeth on mild from the breasts. And the bridegroom of the church calleth the magi. And the son of the virgin accepteth gifts from them. We worship thy nativity, O Christ. (Ancient-Future Time, p. 62)Speaking of the stunning miracle of the incarnation, Bobby Gross wrote this:
Christmas---not just the single day but the festival of twelve days---offers us anew the gift and draws us again into this mystery: Word-become-flesh, Creator-turned-creature, immensity-contained, fullness-poured-out, power-made-vulnerable, eternity-subject-to-time. All this self-giving by God for our sakes---a gift immeasurable, a love incomprehensible. (Living the Christian Year, p. 64)Noting that the incarnation is an inconceivable mystery, T. F. Torrance wrote this:
...This is a mystery that is not conceivable in ordinary human thought---it is a miracle. And if [believers] know something of this miracle they will know that even in their knowing of it is a very wonderful thing, that it is an act of God. They know the mystery by faith, in the power of the Spirit, but not by themselves alone. It is a gift of God. (Incarnation, pp. 87-88)
The wonderful exchangeConcerning what was accomplished via the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus wrote this:
Man's nature is made new as God becomes man; he [God] remains what he was and becomes what he was not. (Ancient-Future Time, p. 62)Christmas Season celebrates this new event, this new becoming, in the life of God. It also celebrates a new event, a new becoming in the life of humanity, the reality that the incarnation not only brings God to human nature, it brings human nature to God in what the early church referred to as "the wonderful exchange." The apostle Paul put it this way:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)Laurence Stookey puts it this way:
Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited. Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin. Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God. God accepted death that the world might accept life. The Creator assumed temporality to redeem creation from futility. (Calendar, Christ's Time for the Church, p. 106)Christmas Season is thus a powerful reminder that what we humans could not attain because we could not raise ourselves to God, the Word of God (God's eternal Son) attained by descending to us---becoming one of us---Emmanuel, God with us. During Christmas Season, we celebrate both the mystery of God becoming human and the mystery of our own person united with Jesus, and through Jesus united with the triune God. Glory to God in the highest!
A time to celebrate and contemplateChristmas also reminds us that the wonderful exchange is all of grace---a gift we could never earn or deserve, one that accomplishes what we could never achieve---union and communion with God. Given this wonderful, mysterious truth, Christmas Season is a time for both great rejoicing and for quiet contemplation---great thanksgiving coupled with profound humility. Through these spiritual disciplines, we enter more fully (embrace more completely) the union we have with Christ by the Spirit as Jesus, at Christmas, is born anew by faith in our hearts.
I urge pastors and worship leaders to design their Christmas Season worship services to provide space for both celebration and contemplation. In 2018, Christmas day (December 25) is on a Tuesday. With the fourth Sunday of Advent being December 23, you could hold your main Christmas Day service on Christmas eve (December 24) or on Christmas day, and/or have a Christmas Season-themed service on Sunday, December 30 (the sixth day of Christmas).