The Forgotten Participant

Each element in the gospel drama can be viewed through a Trinitarian lens. Take the festival of Christmas as one example. Despite significant references to the Holy Spirit in several appointed readings for the Christmas season, the Holy Spirit is the forgotten participant in the Christmas drama. We see this omission not only in the Christmas card selection at Hallmark but also in music for the season. Yet the juxtaposition of “Christmas” and “Holy Spirit” challenges our understanding of each. First, it anchors our understanding of the Spirit’s work in the person of Jesus Christ: the Holy Spirit is not just any spirit we feel; it is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Second, it makes our understanding of Christmas more dynamic and personal: the Spirit that came upon Mary is the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor and raised him from the dead, and that has now been poured into our hearts. The Spirit makes us participants in the Christmas drama.

A fully Trinitarian approach to Christmas will work to highlight and probe these themes.

—John D. Witvliet, “The Trinitarian DNA of Christian Worship: Perennial Themes in Recent Theological Literature”, 13

The Enfleshment of God

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. A hymn writer summarizes it this way:

This night of wonder, night of joy,
was born the Christ, our brother;
He comes, not mighty to destroy
to bid us love each other.
How could He quit his kingly state
for such a world of greed and hate?
What deep humiliation
secured the world’s salvation!
(“Break Forth O Beauteous, Heavenly Light,” Methodist Hymnal 1989)

—Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 106-7

Exult!

Exult, O morning stars aflame!
with all the works of God proclaim
the Child of Bethlehem who came
for love and love alone.

Come earth and air and sky and sea,
bear witness to His deity
who lived, the Man of Galilee,
for love and love alone.

By faith behold the Crucified,
His arms of mercy open wide,
the Lamb of Calvary, who died
for love and love alone.

Let every eye His glories see,
who was, and is, and is to be;
who reigns as Christ in Majesty
for love and love alone.

* (pause) *

O world, by strife and sorrow torn,
new hope is yours on Christmas morn,
the Prince of Peace a child is born,
for love and love alone.

—Timothy Dudley-Smith, Great Is the Glory: 36 New Hymns written between
1993 & 1996 (Hope Publishing Company)

Rejoice!

Hark, yonder! What means the firing of the Tower gun? Why all this ringing of bells in the church steeples, as if all London were mad with joy? There is a Prince born; therefore there is this salute, and therefore are the bells ringing. Ah, Christians, ring the bells of your hearts, fire the salute of your most joyous songs, For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.

Wipe that tear away! Come, stop that sighing! Hush your murmuring. What matters your poverty? Unto you a child is born. What matter your sickness? Unto you a Son is given.  What matters your sin? For this child shall take the sin away, and this Son shall wash and make you fit for heaven. I say, if it be so,

Lift up the heart, lift up the voice,
Rejoice aloud! Ye saints, rejoice!

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons 46:694

Christmas 1944 in Berlin

The late Ilse Shaffer, who later married an American and with him served as a missionary in her homeland of Germany, grew up in Berlin during World War II and wrote about Christmas 1944 in that city. How prone we are to look back at all the people in Nazi Germany as “the enemy” and never consider the plight of Christians there.  (Note: The “Christmas Trees” she mentions was the ironic label given by Germans to the incendiary markers dropped by Allied planes to target an area for the bombers.)

CHRISTMAS 1944 IN BERLIN

Would there really be Christmas again? Was this the time to celebrate? Where did all the people live that one saw in the streets, the overcrowded streetcars and buses? (So many buildings were destroyed.) Our army in the east was defeated. The Russians were in East Prussia and the Allies were getting close to the western border. We could no longer trust our news, but we knew the end was not too far away.

And now Christmas was approaching, the celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace; my heart was bitter toward God. What did it mean this Christmas message: “Peace on earth?” There was no peace. This was the sixth Christmas since the war began, and still no peace. Where was God in all the destruction, the dying, the bombing? We saw the first refugees from the east, pulling a little cart with their few possessions, walking in this cold winter, walking, walking, walking, telling us horror stories of murder and rapes by Russian soldiers. “Peace on Earth”??? What would the next months bring? The bombing had not stopped; it got worse, day and night, day and night.

There were no lights in the streets, not many goods on the shelves, only at night the sky was lit up by the “Christmas Tree” bright lights that came down from heaven. The U.S. bombers were coming. If those lights shone over us or near us, we knew we were the targets of their bombs. We better get ready for it. We had not seen any Christmas trees for sale; we had better forget about Christmas. Then, the last day before the holidays my father had found a big branch of a tree about three feet tall. We rejoiced. What shall we do with it? Cut it up, put it in a vase? I found a big flower pot, filled it with sand, cut off the lower branches which I fastened to the trunk to make it look like a tree. The main branch was not quite straight. So I took a walking stick from my father, stuck it in the sand in the flower pot and gave the branch more support. It looked more and more like a Christmas tree. The clear old ornaments were fastened to the branches. There was our Christmas tree!

I cannot remember any presents. My mother raised rabbits, at least one gave its life so we could enjoy meat, but the real Christmas to us was when we all walked to church and heard the Christmas story. How different it sounded this year. Mary and Joseph, tired and hungry, could not find a place to live—so many people’s homes were bombed, they could not find a place to live—God understood. The baby Jesus had no bed, slept in a manger—our soldiers had to sleep on the floor, on straw or hay. God understood. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus had to leave in a hurry, fleeing Herod—whole families: we saw grandparents, mothers and children, fleeing from home—God understood. How close God was—He was rejected, poor, in danger. His suffering had begun with His birth. He was one of us. Peace, the peace of God, filled our hearts. Christmas took on new meaning—He understood.

The Great Exchange

Christmas is the season of the great exchange. Greeting cards are exchanged, as are social invitations and visits. Gifts are exchanged around the Christmas tree on December 25—and at store counters on December 26. But none of that begins to approximate what is meant here by “the great exchange.” For in the depths of its meaning, Christmas is about the exchange of divinity and humanity, of eternity and temporality, of life and death.

The season’s familiarity and its immense popular appeal obscure the fact that Christmas is a mystery comparable to that of the Pasch and fully dependent on faith in the Paschal victory. The wonder of Christmas is not, as might be supposed, “How can a virgin bear a child?” The virginal conception of Jesus is not in itself the mystery but is rather one way of pointing to the mystery, of indicating that what occurred at Bethlehem is outside the bounds of both human experience and explanation. The marvel is that the Creator of the cosmos comes as creature for the purpose of setting right all that has gone wrong on this tiny planet. The wonder is that the Eternal One who can be neither created nor destroyed willingly becomes subject to both birth and death.

—Laurence Hill Stookey,  Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 105

The Fullness of Time (Galatians 4:4)

He came at the hour which God had determined.  The infinite Lord appoints the date of every event; all times are in His hand. There are no loose threads in the providence of God, no stitches are dropped, no events are left to chance. The great clock of the universe keeps good time, and the whole machinery of providence moves with unerring punctuality.

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sermon “The Great Birthday and Our Coming of Age”

Incarnation and Image

The very possibility of the incarnation of the Son of God itself rests on our possession of the image of God. It is because man fundamentally reflects the personal character of God that God Himself can take on flesh and blood. We can make sense of incarnation only in the light of what we know already about the constitution of man as the highest of all the creatures of God, whom God has made for fellowship with Himself. The high dignity which this confers upon human existence is radically underscored by the union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. God commits Himself to us forever by clothing His own Son with human nature.

—Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Complete in Christ, 27

Mingled with Us

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

God doesn’t need the incarnation any more than He needs the world. He would be the same infinitely joyful, infinitely lively and infinitely satisfied God if we had never existed and if Jesus had never been born.

God doesn’t need the incarnation, but the incarnation is not alien to God. God is boundlessly good, with a goodness that is infinite love. He is a ring of self-giving love from Father to Spirit to Son to Spirit to Father. Philanthropy —love for humans —comes naturally to the Triune God, the fitting expression of the goodness God is.

His Triune goodness is displayed in His willingness to become flesh and “mingle” with us (Gregory of Nyssa).

Our good is to mingle with Him.  He has become one spirit with us; our good is to be one spirit with Him.  He has united Himself with our flesh; our good is to be one body with Him.

—Peter J. Leithart, blog post on John 1:14 (peterleithart.com)

Far and Near

The key paradox to all paradoxes is the Incarnation. We confess Jesus to be the God-Man. Both. Not one or the other, but both. We can stress His deity to the point of forgetting His humanity. We can focus on His humanity to the point of denying His divinity.

The truth of the Incarnation is not an either/or but a both/and. The same is true for transcendence and immanence. When transcendence and immanence are brought together, God is present; it’s a true divine-human encounter.

Throughout biblical history, God’s immanence is always known together with God’s transcendence. Consider Moses and the burning bush, the Exodus, the Annunciation, the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, and Pentecost.

The experience of God’s transcendent immanence never provokes a “Golly, gee-wiz! Hi there, God” response. Rather it incites awe, wonder, and an overwhelming sense of the mysterium tremendum. The believer, engulfed by the numinous and moved by the reality of an encounter with the divine, experiences speechlessness.

—Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship (email) 10/29/03

Truly Man

The glory of the incarnation is that the physicality of Jesus—His human nature—is the very means by which God is known. In other words, the humanity of Jesus was not an obstacle to God’s revelation that we somehow need to look past to find God. On the contrary, the humanity of Jesus, His tangible, physical, material presence, was and is the way by which God is known through Jesus. The incarnation is the ultimate declaration of what is proclaimed repeatedly in Genesis 1: God saw what He had made, and it was good.

—Gordon T. Smith, A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church, 27

Hark!

Come, Desire of nations come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord efface:
Stamp Thy image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
        “Glory to the newborn King!”

—Charles Wesley