Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

An Advent Text and Some Reflections on It

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Advent text for the day:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the saving justice of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21; NRSV altered).

Four reflections on this passage:

1. There is a unity of purpose from Christ’s incarnation to his ministry to his death and resurrection. These aspects of his work are inseparable from one another.

2. That purpose can be summarized in the words reconciliation, participation, and transformation. These aspects of salvation are inseparable from each other.

3. The reconciled are to be instruments of reconciliation, bringing people to peace with God and with one another. Salvation and mission are inseparable from each other.

4. Every Christian person, community, theology, and ethic needs to make reconciliation a central part of its identity.

The last point is the implicit claim of my latest book (The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A [Not So] New Model of the Atonement [Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014]) and my forthcoming book (Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015]), each of which devotes two chapters to peace and peacemaking.

Kings College Bidding Prayer–Festival of Lessons and Carols

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

A portion of this year’s bidding (opening) prayer for the Kings College Cambridge Service of Lessons and Carols, 3 pm today in England (10 am Eastern US time):

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger. Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the ?rst days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessèd Mother, glad with our carols of praise:

But ?rst let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build…

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the
Word made ?esh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

Advent 2011

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

Happy New Year! (That’s right; it’s the beginning of the Christian New Year.) As Advent 2011 begins, I am sensing a genuine renewal of interest, in many circles, about taking and keeping Advent seriously–even among non-liturgical folks.

I’ll be speaking about this at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Odenton, MD, which is literally in my backyard. (Our yard adjoins the church property.) The title of the talk: “Reclaiming Advent: A Spiritual Season for a Secular Age.” The talk is sponsored by all the Catholic churches in the area and is open to all. After all, the speaker is Methodist.

More Civil Religion at Christmas

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I had the misfortune of attending church on December 26 at a relative’s church where the pastor of visitation (I believe), a former military chaplain, led the service and preached. He managed to mention the military and war at least 10 times during the service, even apart from the sermon, which was on the birth narrative in Matthew, focusing on cruel Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

Now he actually made a good point: that the story of the incarnation is not an unrealistic, feel-good fairy tale but one in which the horror of human evil is recognized and is a central part of the narrative. So far so good. I’ve preached and taught this myself.

But the rather startling conclusion to the sermon was that while evil is still real, it will not win in the end, not because the counterintuitive, vulnerable power of God seen in the incarnation and cross will triumph, but because God’s truth is marching on, especially (he clearly implied) in the form of U.S. military power and activity. So the post-sermon hymn–on the day after Christmas!!!–was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”!!!

With Charlie Brown, I feel like saying, “Good grief!” and asking, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”

Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas (2): A Guest Post

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

In response to my previous post, my friend and former student Susan Jaeger offers the following thoughtful take on the Hallelujah Chorus during Advent and Christmas:

I am aware that the Hallelujah Chorus is not part of the Advent/Christmas section of Messiah (though most performances of Messiah that I have heard during Advent have included the entire work). What I appreciated about the video clip [of the flash mob in Canada singing the Hallelujah Chorus] was that, in the midst of the peak time for pre-Christmas shopping madness, the juxtaposition of the Hallelujah Chorus with all the shopping-mall corporate logos made me think of something Tom Wright might say: if Jesus is Lord, then Mammon is not.

I am not so naive as to assume that the same thought was in the minds of all the singers. Obviously it is impossible to know what their various motivations might have been. It’s just that my own thoughts and motivations are muddled often enough that it is hard to judge others. I found it to be a lovely performance musically. People singing about Jesus as Lord, in the middle of the “Agora,” seemed to me to be a worthy confrontation with paganism, at least slightly akin to early Christianity.

Despite my strong reservations about the Hallelujah Chorus at this time of year (unless sung at its appropriate place in Messiah), including the fear that its powerful content indicated by Susan will be trivialized, I think she makes a very good point. Thank you, Susan.

Good-bye, Away in a Manger and the Hallelujah Chorus (the latter at least at Christmas)

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Brian Gorman (yes, he’s related) has a fine post about some of the church’s theologically poor and misleading Christmas music, above all “Away in a Manger” (sorry, kids) here.

I will add my two-cents about the Hallelujah Chorus, which seems to be gaining in popularity, at least in shopping malls. While there’s lots to sing about and shout Hallelujah about at Christmas, Handel’s “Christmas Part” (part I) of his oratorio Messiah does not end with the Hallelujah Chorus. Handel and his collaborator Charles Jennens knew better. The Hallelujah Chorus, derived from Revelation 19:6,16 and 11:15, concludes part 2 of Messiah‘s three parts. It celebrates the victory and reign of God/the Lamb, the defeat of evil and emperor, the reality that God alone is and always will be Lord, and the fact that we know this God in the self-revelation of the Lamb who was slain and who triumphs, by his word, over all God’s enemies.

Can we sing that in Advent and at Christmas? Of course. Jesus’ birth demonstrates and foreshadows some of those Revelation themes. But I doubt most people sing it for that reason (actually, I’m not sure why hey sing it, apart from the one word “Hallelujah”), and I doubt, liturgically, narratively, and theologically that now is the best time to sing it. The end of part two of Messiah celebrates the Lordship of God, over against all false claimants to the throne of the universe, that is manifested in the victory of cross, resurrection, and ascension.

Let’s wait a few months to sing Hallelujah.

Civil Religion at Christmas

Monday, December 20th, 2010

It should come as no surprise, especially in this country, that even some of those who try to keep Christmas a “religious” occasion, rather than a purely secular one, cannot refrain from re-making Christmas into a celebration of civil religion, even of the militaristic kind.

Let me give just one example.

One of my favorite biblical texts that is often read in Advent and associated with the gift of peace, both present and future, that Jesus the Prince of Peace provides is from Isaiah 11:

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent I heard a beautiful musical setting of this text that was, unfortunately, ruined by an interpreter’s brash and inappropriate connection of these words to current U.S. military action around the world. (Thankfully, this did not occur at my church.)

Making this sort of militaristic connection comes so naturally to most Americans that it hardly seems odd or wrong to them. They do not realize that in so doing they are denying the very claim they make, and probably have in some of their Christmas cards: that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Or, to put it more forcefully and in line with Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, the book of Revelation, etc.: Jesus, not Caesar, is the Prince of Peace.

I will be the first to admit that currently we do not see Isaiah’s vision realized in its fulness. But that does not mean that U.S. military action is the way to achieve the peace that Jesus promises and provides. (Even writing that self-evident truth seems so odd, yet so necessary.) Rather, the church–not the military–is called and empowered by God to be beacons and agents of Christ’s peace.

Preachers and other interpreters of God’s word, here is a word for you at this time of year and in this season of world history: resist the temptation, especially this Christmas, to betray the Lord with a militaristic heresy. Preach Jesus, not Caesar, as the Prince of Peace.