There are two kinds of Christmas and both are blessed.
The search for truth and the gift of faith are both blessed. Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.
There are two trails to Christmas.
Hal Luccock preached in the south and in the north, over many years, and said: ‘In the south the hymn is always “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing’, and in the north the scripture is always ‘Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name’.
With the southern many or the northern few, come again, twice born, to Christmas.
There are two sorts of Christmas.
That of body and that of soul.
That of flesh and that of spirit.
That of reality and that of Being.
That of doubt and that of faith.
That of honesty and that of courage.
That of experience and that of hope.
There is a Christmas of northern efficiency and there is a Christmas of southern charm.
That of culture and that of narrative.
In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, two Kinds of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.
We shall test today the weight bearing strength of Horace Bushnell, 1849, in his two phrases: ‘In one view faith is grounded in evidence, but it also creates evidence by the realization it makes of spiritual things.’(God in Christ, 301).
Two kinds of Christmas…
A. Christmas Doubt
One kind of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt. For today, then, a full look at war, greed and silence.
Facts are stubborn things. Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles. A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.
A pause at the Charles. To begin.
The world looks nothing like Christmas.
We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending. But we are a people at war. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Here is the clothing of hubris: the shirt of pre-emption, the coat of unilateralism, the hat of imperialism, the waistband of incompletion. No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the wordflesh fully abroad.
We watched Carmelo Anthony grow up. He led Syracuse to the championship, and smiled all the way. I loved to watch him. Lose or win, he smiled. Down thirty, up ten, he smiled. Coach Boeheim smiling or scowling—and it wasn’t mostly smiling—mellow Carmelo smiled, happy to be alive.
Unlike him, it was, last week, to throw a first punch. Not his own self. To strike first, to act alone, to swing with temper, and to cause unforeseeable consequences. We live out of the future, but understand out of the past. So, in hindsight, he can see, and confess, and apologize, and receive and rework forgiveness. I noticed he apologized to a long list, but he mentioned his mother. That’s the young man we watched grow up.
We have watched good people across four years engage this young country in the worst strategic error of our history, our single biggest military mistake. We swung first. We acted alone. We did so with temper, angry and arrogant. Without foresight, limit, or breadcrumbs to mark the path home. Pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, unforeseeable. Hindsight is 20-20. People of good heart and mind differed as to whether the invasion was a tragic necessity or an unnecessary tragedy. There is little doubt now.
What would the river say? John the Baptist?
He would also ask where the churches were (with a few exceptions) to remind and confront, where the pulpits were (with a few exceptions) to challenge and teach, where the congregations were (with a few exceptions), to protest and reject.
What are we to do now? In the large, it is difficult to know.
But in the small? We come to worship. That is, we must confess, and seek pardon. The center of Christian worship is the prayer of confession and the statement of pardon. To move forward we need to repent of the past, truly repent in numbers—3,000, 15,000, 650,000, 2,000,000 (dead, wounded, displaced, refugee). And seek the open future that comes with pardon. Do you know God to be a pardoning God? Carmelo knew his mother to be a pardoning mother, or he would not have asked pardon.
War is a long way from Christmas.
A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue. A place to honor music, the height of the invisible. It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas. This week, even from our national pulpit, the White House press conference, we are encouraged to shop. To buy! And to give? Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways. One leans toward commodity and the other toward community. It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country. As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture. Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas? Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale? We know that symbols die. Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both. It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer. Whither wonder, morality, generosity?
A pause at the Hatch Shell. To listen. Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse. Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow. It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth. To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.
When to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things
And to yield with a grace to reason
And to bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season? (Frost)
And from the hurt comes doubt. We are indebted to writers like James Wood (NEW REPUBLIC ON LINE) for careful reviews of speaking and thinking about God, today. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God. Overhear the fine stentorian British voice and impeccable speech with which Richard Dawkins flays theism, and more so the undergraduate cheering and jeering he evokes. Like the primitive Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism. Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John, is blessed at Christmas.
At the river we listen to the silence…
The violence of the Tsunami has not yet been fully cured.
The destruction of Katrina has not been rebuilt.
The loss of safety, discipline and respect in urban and other public schools has not been improved.
The loss of life in Darfur has not been stemmed.
The rising ocean levels, something for shoreline cities to consider, have not abated.
The market for nuclear weaponries has not disappeared.
The threats of cancers in all forms have not been stymied.
The voice of Ivan Karamazov carries still, all the way down to the Science Museum, and all the way around the globe...
Here then is one Christmas trail and tale: a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming.
Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…
Kind Sir. Just how sure are you? In the moonlight, with a shimmering. Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers. And…Other? Mystery? Spirit? The Luminous Numinous? A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.
All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside… Mystery. Being. Spirit. All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing. Doubt is shadowed by faith.
B. Christmas Faith
And faith is shadowed by doubt. Another kind of Christmas begins with the gift of faith. A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.
Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.
You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian. Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.
3. Wonder (in the Silence)
A pause at the Gospel, in church. To think. Now inside, not outside. Now at the rail, not at the river. Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.
All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Now thirty years of Christmas winters and Christmas Eve services later, I can testify that every year, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life. The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying. It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail. Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.
Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship. Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith. Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.
Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ. Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail. There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed. One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love. Both are good, both needed. Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah. But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading.
We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future. The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. How you live creates a wake. How one speaks creates a set of possibilities. I like to think of the older English scholars at Christmas, like C H Dodd: ‘faith is an act which is the negation of all activity, a moment of passivity out of which the strength for action comes, because in it God acts’ (IBD 41) He renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.
On a reliable hope hangs our global future. We can imagine more than war. We can imagine more than the stark Manichaeism of ideological rhetoric about ideology, as in ‘a conflict between the ideology of liberty and the ideology of hatred’ (GWB, 12/21,06). The greatest consequence of war is further war, but its second harshest consequence is the dulling of the imagination. Hear good news. Hear echoes of Deborah and Judith and David and even Obededom the Gittite. Blessed are those who hear the word and keep it. At Christmas, the open future of possibility lives. One range in that future includes conversation, dialogue, diplomacy, innocence, life, love.
2. Care (amid greed)
A pause at the lesson. To continue.
Who would begrudge to them their favorite hymn, as come midnight on Christmas Eve, all the secular shopkeepers, and mercantile stockholders, and non-religious vendors stand under the street lamp, besnowed and singing: ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’? Some giving of gifts, of course, is happy, right and good, a part of our mutual shepherding, one of another.
The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ. The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness. Here, for once, a sentence from Calvin: ‘Some are so excessively pleased with themselves that in order to shine alone they despise God’s gifts to their brothers, while others exalt men with such a degree of superstition that they make idols of them for themselves’ (Calvin, Commentaries, #1, loc.cit.). And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out. Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored. A shepherd leads by example. Here is care: in the giving of money. Here is care: in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile. Here is care: waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope. Here is care: investing in what can cross the bridges of difference. Here is care: the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.
1. Peace (in a time of War)
A pause, too, at the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance. But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse. In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward. Every day we can live a changed life.
Do we oppose pre-emption? We do. Then in our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.
Do we oppose unilateralism? We do. Then let us in our own lives eschew any selffull, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.
Do we reject imperialism? We do. Then let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).
Do we criticize lack of foresight? We do. Then let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance. (For this fourfold outworking of the Christ in the World, see R Neville, A Theology Primer).
We know the truth of Niebuhr’s distinction between moral man and immoral society. Individuals are free in ways that elude collectives. But collectives are shaped by individuals. And both, collective and individual, can develop Niebuhr’s saintly desire: develop a spiritual discipline against resentment, develop a spiritual discipline against resentment, develop a spiritual discipline against resentment.
“Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest”. And when we worship, let us confess and be absolved.
Forgive us our sins…
If we do nothing else, let us worship, and if we do nothing else in worship, let us confess our waywardness, in the hope of pardon.
Here is a Christmas faith. In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas: wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of war.
And yet. Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too. ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). We need the buried middle voice, lost in English, audible in Spanish, visible in Greek. (e.g. Me corte el pelo). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.
There are two kinds of Christmas. One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt. Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith. Both are blessed, both the true and the good.
We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night. It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key. So, Auden:
He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.