Monday, December 23, 2019

Does it Feel Like Christmas?

Light of the World by Mark Missman
As I was preparing my Christmas sermon, I am reminded of a personal test of authenticity for things I read that occurred to me while I was in seminary. If, while I am reading (or listening to) something, I sense Christmas in it, that is a sign that the author/speaker is on to something. I think I first became aware of this when, while reading first volume of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, I suddenly felt the thrill I feel when hearing Christmas horns, bells, or carols. I know it sounds trite and potentially sentimental. It is certainly idiosyncratic. But when I sense Christmas in something I know it is tapping into deep truth. And it is not always something as heavy as a profound work of theology. It comes, as Christmas does, in simpler things. Here is what I think it is about.

In the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke along with the first chapter of John, there is a vision of God that is at once expansive and intimate. It is also full of hope and promise – expectancy. There is the intimacy of the holy family huddled in the stable coping with a newborn but without the usual resources of home and extended family. On top of that they will have to flee for their lives and become refugees before it is all over. There are the down and out shepherds working the night shift doing work no one else wanted to do. There are the Magi, foreigners, strangers in a strange land, eccentrics following a star and a rumor of glory. Yet the God of the universe is intimately engaged in this homely setting. And more, this cast of outcasts is caught up in the great expectation of God’s extravagant promise to bless the nations and resolve the enmity between humans and God and humans and each other. It reaches a crescendo when the shepherds are bathed in the glory of the Lord and the angel announces extravagant good news that a savior is born. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

There is fear and awe, but there is also the thrill of hope and possibility, of a great promise about to be fulfilled. The story contains all the darkness of oppression, violence, poverty, and displacement – both spiritual and physical. But in this small vulnerable baby the Love that moves the sun and all stars, the fire in the equation, has taken on human flesh with all its vulnerabilities – God with us. That Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. O little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!

This is a God who is intimate, a God who is both immanent and transcendent, a God who dares to show up as a vulnerable baby, a God who makes good on his promises, a God who delivers. Of course, the real heart and climax of the story comes on Easter. But, the Christmas story summarizes the good news of which Crucifixion and Resurrection are the exclamation point.

It does not matter what time of year it is. If, when I am reading theology or hearing a sermon or even reading a novel, I sense echoes of such joy and hope, if I catch a glimpse of this God, I take notice. When I don’t sense such echoes – when I don’t feel Christmas – I also take note. Some theologians, authors, and preachers suck Christmas right out of the room. Others can evoke it without trying or even intending to. Those are the ones I pay attention to.

I first made the connection reading Barth, but it is certainly also true of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Frederick Buechner, Rowan Williams, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Dante, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, and many others.

Have you ever felt that thrill of Christmas while reading or hearing someone?

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