Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas and the Gospel

The story of the Gospel begins at the incarnation. Well, really, it begins thousands of years earlier, in the first chapters of Genesis, where the Gospel is promised, ushering in a long period of expectation. But the story of how God actually reached His hand into human history and brought about the salvation of His people really does begin in the manger, when God Himself became man and dwelt at last among us.

This was the moment that, as Paul described, Christ, though one in the same as God, willingly made Himself nothing. He made Himself man. In fact, He made himself into something less than man—He made Himself a slave to all men. He was not born in a home—he was born in a stable. He did not lie on blankets; he lay on a bed of straw. He did not descend to the world, he descended below the world, to a place meant for animals. He did not die as a leader, He died as a common criminal.

Here, while lying on a manger and worshipped as both God and King only by his family and some shepherds, God began his work. The beginnings were humble and unassuming, and, though one might expect the story to turn here into an underdog tale of a scrappy insurgency into the world, in fact the rest of the story does not stray far—a carpenter like His father, an itinerant teacher who happened to have a message bold and new enough to attract a few followers even before the first of the miracles. The rest of the story came and went like a whirlwind: miracles, confrontations with religious aristocracy, crowds, parables, death, resurrection. Three years of ministry followed by two thousand years (and counting) of wonder and further expectation.

Whether or not we choose to believe it at all, the child in the manger proves the pivot on which the axis of history continues to turn. It continues to be more influential than any war or ruler; it is more dramatic than the rising or falling of any great empire. It stands as the event. The foundation of the Gospel of salvation. Neither the most confused skeptic nor the most hardened humanist can deny with any honesty the influence of the event on the history of the world.

But what is this Gospel that began at the incarnation?

It is something that ought to be desired by man. The word itself scream that it is “good news,” and it really ought to be taken that way. Any expression of the Gospel that does not coincide with this fact, but which turns the Gospel into a mournful or condemning one, is nothing less than a false gospel. The Gospel is not a law, it is not a list of rules, it is nothing less than a promise of salvation.

Still, far too often the “good” is neglected in our expression of the Good News, and the Gospel is taken to be something rather to be ashamed of or to be hid from. We think that the imperfections of the world are things that somehow offer evidence against the Gospel, and we turn meek and mild, thinking that in boldness we might come up against questions we cannot answer. We forget that the long, often sordid history of the Christian faith, though indeed embarrassing at times, is a history that confirms rather than contradicts the message of the Gospel—the same Gospel that began on Christmas Day. The winding road of the church only fortifies what the Bible says of the followers of Christ, who three times fell asleep on the night of the arrest of their master and fought amongst themselves about which of them were the greatest. The peculiar shortcomings of the Disciples, culminating in the threefold denial by Peter, amount to perhaps the perfect cross section of the Christian church as it has existed throughout history. As Christians we continue (so it seems) in a perpetual state of either sleep or denial regarding our faith. We are either apathetic or actively antagonistic toward our creator, and I cannot say which is worse.

The shortcomings of Christians, while regrettable, do nothing to diminish the truth of the Gospel. The Bible is in no way silent about the more embarrassing tendencies of the Christian, just as it is painfully candid about the shortcomings of the Jews. The New Testament does not tell the story of a new, perfect movement, destined to take the world by a storm of righteousness. Though Christmas really did mean the birth of the King, and it really did mean the beginning of a Kingdom, the fullness of the Kingdom and the true reign of the King are yet to be experienced in their fullness. The movement that started on Christmas day is now as it was then—a great, even momentous, struggle; we strive to spread the message of the Kingdom despite facing opposition both from within and without. It is an imperfect movement (though based on perfect principles) that, if we are going to be reasonable, really should have died a young, ignoble death long ago.

Christianity really should never have survived past that first Christmas. The name of Jesus Christ really shouldn’t have outlasted the furniture made by His hands. The religious movement He began really ought to have died with Him. And yet, even in those first years and decades the Christ movement was already proclaiming victory. Christianity, even at the moment when it should have been in the throes of death, declared itself to be a force capable of overwhelming the Earth. The conquering nature of the faith was promised long before there were any signs that such a thing was even possible.

Consider this: Right up until the ministry of Christ and the writing of the New Testament, when God finally announced that the message of his salvation was to be taken to the ends of the Earth—the moment he declared that this formerly localized religion was destined to completely overwhelm civilization—this was an unheard of conceit. The very notion of evangelism in the name of religion was practically unheard of. Religions had, until then, been driven by cultural forces—the culture and the people had created the religion rather than the other way around. It was as true in the Mediterranean world, where the gods of Greece, Rome and Egypt all bore an uncanny likeness to the cultures that bore them, as it was in the East, where Hinduism, Buddhism and the like seem almost inevitable. Before Christ, the only culture ever founded upon religion was that of the Jews, and still, these were a people who seemed to do everything they could to shake off the shackles of God and make Him conform to what they found more comfortable—and to their own demise.

The Jews wanted desperately to be like every other Kingdom—the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians—who were not bound by religion. The people of these other cultures created gods for themselves that strengthened them. There was nothing challenging or burdensome about their manmade gods. We all recognize the truth that the God of Israel can be difficult to follow; He asks hard things from us and often offers no explanations. Who would dare create such a God? And who could possibly convince others to follow such a God, especially when it requires so much? We can see, in retrospect, that following God, though difficult, truly was the best for the people of Israel—for when they turned from Him it only meant disaster—but it is hard, almost impossible to understand this in the moment.

Still, even for the Israelites there was the sense that God belonged to them alone—that He was a God that had confined Himself to a single people. It is even more astonishing, in light of this, that the New Testament should be so presumptuous as to declare that the Gospel would overrun the world. And bear in mind, this claim is being made at the very time that Paul is writing to some of the earliest churches, who should have been quick to believe, being so inundated with first-hand witnesses of Christ, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you,” or from John: “I know of your works, you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Who, in light of these letters, in light of the turmoil of the canon debates and the rise of apostasy and Gnosticism and false gospels, could have been confident that such a church could ultimately not just survive, but soar? The early church was many things, but destined to overcome the world it was not.

Indeed, the church could not possibly have succeeded had it been built upon the shoulders of a homely religious leader like Paul or a lowly fisherman who could not hold his tongue like Peter. It could not have been built upon anything other than an absolute, concrete truth. It could not have stood on any shoulders but that of a true King—albeit one born under the lowliest of circumstances. It almost seems that it could not possibly have happened any other way.

The Bible ends with a dramatic prophesy of absolute hope—the revealing of the true, perfect Kingdom over which the Christ Child will reign—but that very same prophesy candidly acknowledges that the church will face tremendous hardships and make many mistakes before this comes about. The Bible ends with what seems to me to be this assurance: If the gospel is anything less than the truth—if the child born on Christmas is anything less than God Himself—rest assured, it will be sent through the fire. It will be purged until only the truth, if there is any truth to be found, will remain. The fires of history have shown that the weaknesses of the faith come in the form of the followers rather than the founder of Christianity. The Bible has withstood the tests of the skeptics, Christ has easily withstood His harshest critics, even when the Christian has failed. There is hope in this.

The history of humanity has always been—indeed, continues to be—a history of waiting for God to come. He came first to the garden and brought both condemnation and hope; He came in the incarnation and brought salvation; He promises to come again to bring the fulfillment of every promise. He came to the garden and Adam hid in his shame. He came to Bethlehem and the King tried to kill him, eventually succeeding. He will come in the end to rescue His people and to conquer and crush His enemies beneath his feet.

The season of Advent represents this time of waiting. It is a time when we ought to reflect upon not just what we are waiting for or who we are waiting for, but how we go about it. How are our lives reflecting our deep anticipation and hope? What roles are we choosing to play in the history of our faith?

If we truly believe the truth of the Gospel that claims itself capable of overtaking the world, why are we so hesitant to take part in this unstoppable force?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Advent for All

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard von Honthorst, 1622

Peace. Love. Joy. Goodwill.

The meaning of the Christmas story—the ancient and beloved event we call “The Nativity” and the season called “Advent”—is one of such depth and complexity that it can scarcely be summed up by just one or two of those particular words, themes or phrases common in these last days of the year. It is profound and it is complex, and yet we often fall back on a specific and limited vocabulary to describe the atmosphere surrounding this simple, joyous holiday. It seems easy, after all, to associate particular words with this season, as if in those words and their modern meanings may be wrapped up the whole meaning and impact of the Christmas story.

Peace is one such word. It is easy to take the words of the angel chorus to heart and with them define the whole of the Christmas story: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” One may indeed take great comfort in asserting that the Christmas story is one in which a true peace enters the world through the birth of Christ. As I wrote previously, however, it seems almost equally valid to say that the birth of Christ brought about the very opposite of peace. As Christ Himself said later, He came not to bring peace, but a sword. Brother against brother, parents against children. Siding with Him was siding against the world. The peace proclaimed by the Heavenly Host was quite real at the moment of his birth and it remains very much real today, but it is an eternal peace, rather than a worldly one. At Christmas we celebrate not a real, tangible, worldwide peace—it represents neither an end to war nor to human sin and suffering—but rather the hope and belief that such a peace is both forthcoming and inevitable. As we are reminded so often, and rarely more tragically than the events of this past weekend in Newtown, Connecticut, the peace we are promised has not come in its fullness. The peace of "God with us" remains something that can be and felt and experienced inwardly, but will only be truly understood in time. In that sense, Christmas very much is a holiday of peace, and we can say so with confidence even as we are bombarded by news of pain and suffering in our world.

We might also say (and often do) that this is a holiday of love. Such is a theme (like peace) woven throughout the various Christmas hymns and carols that pervade this season, and indeed it is certainly present in abundance within the Christmas story. So sums up the Apostle John in perhaps that most famous of all passages: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” Christ was the love of God manifest, of that there can be little doubt. And indeed, among skeptic, pagan, and Christian alike, the season is awash in manifestations of a sort of humanly love that seems eerily absent throughout much of the rest of the year. Call it a product of excess commercialism or of some sort of herd mentality if you wish, but it is both present and visible, though it is only a pale, blurry (yet still beautiful) reflection of the true love of God. People give more to those in need, they find enjoyment in blessing others, their face shines with kindness and mercy… it truly is a season of love.

And what about joy? What about glory? What about salvation? What about the unsurpassable miracle of childbirth or the glorious, inexhaustible beauty of God Incarnate?

There is certainly no shortage of themes within the Christmas story; and it is this very fact that makes the holiday fundamentally unique among all the holidays and traditions of all the religions in the world. In Christmas alone is embodied those features that make Christianity—whether Protestant or Catholic—wholly unique among the world’s religions, for Christianity does not strive to be merely a religion that preaches peace, love and joy; it strives to be the very embodiment and perfection of those things on Earth.

This audacity makes Christianity unique among the world’s religions (more and more as our world loses its absolutes). It is remarkable, but it is rendered even more remarkable at Christmas, when opposites can truly coexist. Christ is love, but following him means that we may be hated. Christ brought peace but the gesture was something very much resembling warmongering. The nativity was joyful, but made the sorrow of Good Friday inevitable. It is the Christmas story wherein every disparate piece of human society is both physically and symbolically brought together to a single location in a single moment. Mary and Joseph, the common, faithful, orthodox Jewish parents are there, of course, along with the fearful working class shepherds and the mystical wise men from the east. These latter individuals, with their peculiar gifts (could they even have realized at the time the dramatic, messianic symbolism of the gold, frankincense and myrrh?), provide perhaps one of the most easily forgotten symbols of Christmas.

To think that a people of such great intellect—scholars, philosophers, mystics, or some combination of all three (as the wise men are believed to be)—could be drawn over such great distances in hopes of satisfying not a spiritual hunger, but a very human curiosity and scholarship, is something worthy of awe. The wise men were drawn by little more than intellectual fascination with a certain celestial aberration and arrived in Jerusalem only to be confronted by the King of Israel himself. After passing whatever test Herod had in store for them, perhaps by some demonstration of the faith of their own nation, they descended on Bethlehem and were at once brought to their knees, worshipping with exceeding joy, being led to true belief in the presence of nothing more than a baby born in the humblest of conditions imaginable. It is here, in this lowly child, that they found precisely what every other philosopher sought but had never dreamed of actually achieving—an all-encompassing philosophy of everything. A true quintessence in which all other thoughts and theories could be enraptured and made whole and complete. To quote Chesterton yet again, the Magi had found the truth: “The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal.”

The role-call at that improbable little event, then, is worth noting again and again: There are the parents (and their all-important child), the shepherds, and the Magi, all present at some point somewhere within the vicinity of that first Christmas (though the visit of the Magi might have happened as many as two years later). And then we mustn’t forget that there is the King of Israel himself, who was not physically present at the time of Christ’s birth, but might as well have been, as knowledge of his existence couldn’t have been far from the minds of Mary and Joseph, especially as word from the Magi arrived to them of the monarch’s secret plans. Herod was very much present at the birth, looming over that sorry lot like an evil, infanticide-prone shadow from his palace in Jerusalem.

Those who first embraced the Christ-child for who He truly was formed a diverse lot, unquestionably, but they also had much in common. They shared their devotion to the child, for certain, and they had their desire to know Him—in this alone they might have found sufficient cause for brotherhood, but there is much beyond this. They also share common ground in that, in their striving after the Christ child, they—each in their own way—utterly defied the world’s expectations of them. The father would not be confined to social conventions, but took Mary, whom he had never known, to be his wife. He chose accept (perhaps even gladly) the mockery and exclusion of his caste for the sake of his seemingly-dysfunctional little family. The mother, likewise, bore the brunt of social expectation; gladly, though not by choice. The shepherds, working-class men engaged in their labors, abandoned their flock and, at least for a time, ceased to be shepherds for the sake of seeking the truth found in the words of the heavenly host. The magi, for all of their reason, must have seemed utter fools to cross the face of the earth; to defy a king; and to offer valuable Earthly treasures in exchange for the opportunity to reach out and touch the face of heaven with their own hands.

Only Herod played the expected role, and it was he who was most resoundingly defeated. In fact, it was not only Herod, but all earthly kings and rulers who were defeated by the birth of the king at the incarnation. Just as Malcolm Muggeridge noted that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the time of his death proved a mockery to every crown worn by every monarch, past and present, the manger that bore the Christ-child may have seemed lowly, but ultimately proved more grand and more exalted than the greatest of thrones.

The Christmas story, therefore, cannot be summed up merely in saying that it is a time of peace, or of love, or of joy, or of selflessness. Rather, it is a time for something much more, and all of these things echoing words and phrases are merely vague, shadowy manifestations of the truth.

Christmas is a time when scholarship and religion collide and are suddenly found to mesh into one powerfully strong fabric. It is a time when every disparate class of society may be found suddenly and unexpectedly unified; worshiping together in a cave in Bethlehem.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Wars of Christmastime

Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry makers; there is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only bangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapor from the exultant, explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savor is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word “peace”. By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the Bethlehem stable were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicing in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.
G.K. Chesterton
“The Everlasting Man”

The Christmas story has long since ceased to appear revolutionary to most of us. So deeply has it become entrenched into every facet of our society that the celebration of Christmas has long lacked the qualities that allowed it to usher in a brand new world in the first place. It has rejected the revolutionary in favor of the redundant.

I fall into this trap just as quickly as the rest, but then I am reminded by wise words such as those above, and I am reminded of the true nature of Christmas. I am reminded that it is an uprising. A revolution. But it is certainly an odd sort of revolution, as it is one fought first by a child rather than an army. It is also a lengthy revolution—two millennia and counting. But strangest of all, it is a revolution whose end was already determined before it was ever initiated. It is a war whose battles we continue to fight—which we are supposed to continue to fight with every ounce of our being—even though it has already been won. I suppose there is some sort of beautiful irony in the fact that our inevitable victory is meant to encourage us to fight on with ever more boldness and vigor. Christmas marks both the beginning and the end of a great struggle in which even the most formidable powers of Earth are brought to their knees in humility; where a child can be born utterly unknown and unrecognized by the world, yet still strike so much fear into the heart of a ruling King that he believes it necessary to take the most drastic measures in order to devour the threat.

Herod must have seemed positively mad from any rational human standpoint to take so seriously the warnings of the Magi that he would take to slaughter infants, yet only with the benefit of hindsight may we look back and make the remarkable claim that despite his intolerably evil act; even in this despicable decision of an altogether vile man trying desperately to cling to his precious Earthly throne; Herod had been right to fear. And even more profound, we know that even in this cruel act Herod had still powerfully underestimated the power and influence of this baby who was being weaned in a lowly cave within his kingdom. He feared for his own power, but he could not have understood that the kingdom this child would establish was far greater than his own, and that he would usurp the throne not just of Israel’s king, but of every king and ruler in all of human history. The kingdom established by the Christ-child would be a kingdom whose soldiers, armed with love and literature rather than swords or spears, would prove far more effective in conquest than any human army, whether of the Babylonians, the Romans, or the Macedonians.

Even so, it seems that Herod, beneath all of his evil, may have understood the meaning of Christmas better than you or I. He could see more clearly the threat posed by the coming of Immanuel, and his actions demonstrated this perfectly.

The incarnation of God was nothing less than a call to arms; it was a call that demanded one to take up sides, either for or against. One kingdom facing off against another. That of Heaven against that of man. Herod chose his side, and he attempted to woo the visiting Magi into his plan, though with all the cunning of double-agents, they brought warning to the King’s enemy instead.

The world continues to fight against the child in the manger, of course, but it does so only in a sort of desperate last gasp—a futile effort to delay the inevitable. It is a war waged against the forces of God and heaven, who wait in patience (as we also are told to do) for the fulfillment of the Kingdom over which Christ is truly King—a kingdom that is all at once here and yet still to come.

It is because of the faith born on that first Christmas day that we fight on; it is because of Christ that we do not cease pressing forward in realization that the battle has been won; we do not shrug in complacency. We press on with ever greater confidence, resting in the warm assurance of our success. Our already victory allows us to endure every trial and every tribulation without fear, and it enables a boldness unknown to the world—a boldness that is of little worth if it is not leveraged to do great things. The man who truly understands Christmas is the man willing to give all in response to it. Just as Herod sacrificed his own humanity along with innocent children in a futile and evil attempt to put an early end to the threat, we also must come to understand the impact of the incarnation enough to embrace our humanity and to protect the humanity of others. If ever there was a season to understand the stark contrast between good and evil, it ought to be this. If ever there was a time to take seriously the desperate needs of our world, it ought to be this.  

Now, in these recent years, there is much that is being said of a “war on Christmas,” and it is with a heavy heart that I notice Christians beginning to cower in fear from the attacks on Christmas celebrations. Christians scream and shout of this great “injustice”—they run and tell their lawmakers in hopes of protecting their poor, fragile God and his holiday. They cower and hide from these dreadful heathens—dangerous non-believers who have come to so completely abhor the holiday that they positively bristle when they see signs that it is being celebrated in public; the same non-believers whose greatest fear is that some poor, weak-minded soul might be blindsided by the hidden, brainwashing messages of the season.

I don’t deny that all of this has been happening, and all the more publically with each passing year, but I feel somewhat alone in finding some encouragement in seeing that Christmas has come under attack. Why should I be anything but encouraged that the enemies of Christ appear to have taken their cue from Herod: they have finally begun to take Christ seriously enough to want to rid the world of him? Christ is his most potent when he is taken seriously, is he not? The message of Christianity is at its most dangerous when it is under attack, is it not?

I don’t deny the humanist his right to attempt to abolish Christmas—truly, if he has any desire to strengthen his own faith he has no choice but to do exactly that. Secularism absolutely cannot thrive in a world where Christmas is taken seriously. I cannot fault the opponent of God when he seeks to put an end to the singing of Christian carols in public schools, for the message of Christ is perhaps most easily understood by those who have not been corrupted by the false wisdom brought by age.

I don’t deny that Christmas is an open attack on secular values or humanist. What I do deny is the notion that Christmas is in any danger of disappearing as a result of the counter-attack, for Christians are no more likely to abandon the celebration of Christmas than Christ was in danger of being discovered by Herod’s minions. The same God whose incarnation we celebrate with this season will see to it that the season survives whatever onslaught the world may devise.

Christmas began under war-like conditions, and perhaps it is still engulfed in the same war after more than two thousand years. But only one side has any reason to be afraid of the outcome. Only one side ought to be shivering in their boots when they consider the vast consequences of the conflict. Christmas is a call to joy; it is a call to giving; it is a call to remembrance; but it is also a call to arms, and we would do best to remember that from time to time.