I suppose that a few of you have already read the story in the Lexington Herald-Leader that reported, “Southland Christian Church near Lexington, where more than 7,000 people worship each week, is one of several evangelical megachurches across the country that are opting to cancel services on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar” so that staff members and volunteers can spend more time with their families (there is a long comments thread at Open Book here). I tend to share the concern of the Fuller Seminary professor, Robert K. Johnston, who is quoted in the article as saying, “What’s going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community faithful celebrating the birth of the savior.” The Asbury Theological Seminary professor Ben Witherington has also blogged critically about the decision to close, writing “The church does not exist to serve the physical family but rather to redeem it and make clear that if it is a Christian family it has a larger and more primary obligation to the family of faith and to its Lord. Christmas is one of two days in the year when we should especially make that clear to our culture and our country.”
Of course, while Catholics are obliged to attend Mass on Christmas, closing on December 25 isn’t exactly a historical novelty. This Sunday, commenting in the New York Times on the so-called “Christmas wars,” Adam Cohen pointed out, “As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because ‘they do not accept the day as a Holy One.’” But this closing does pose a question for us, I think. Why is Christmas so theologically important that we should gather as a Christian community, despite the probable inconvenience? I will assume that we all believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God made flesh, but why should we leave family and friends and drive through the wind and snow to contemplate his birth?
I’ll try to offer an answer, based on a recent essay by Fr Brian Daley, SJ. Fr Daley writes, “It is in the incarnation of the Word, seen as an event which includes the whole life of Jesus, rather than simply in his crucifixion or his resurrection, that the ‘event’ of redemption is to be found; the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are of course seen as inseparable stages in his incarnate history, revealing in fullness what the incarnation means, but they are not considered saving events in isolation from his whole life as Word made flesh.” That is, we are to be really included in the whole story of Jesus. If Jesus saved us only through a particular action, he would be nothing more than a mere agent and salvation would be a “work,” inevitably abstract and impersonal. But if salvation is instead a process of transformation, Christ would have to be both human and divine, so that, through the Spirit, he might bring our humanity to real participation in God’s life as “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Because salvation is indeed transformation – “incorruptibility, glory, honor, and power, which are agreed to be characteristic of the divine nature” are to be ours, says St Gregory of Nyssa – we do have to meditate on who Christ is, not simply what he does.
More concretely, salvation is first a matter of identification with Christ – by participating in Christ, we become sons and daughters of the Father. This is usually imagined as an exchange – Christ became human and took our infirmities upon himself, that we might take on his immortality and righteousness. The fourth-century Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa writes, “Man is the creature for whose sake God became human, so that this creature might attain incorruption and escape corruption, might reign on high, being made after the image and likeness of God, dwelling with Christ as a child of God, and might be enthroned above all rule and all authority. Who, then, can fully express the pre-eminence of so singular a creature?”
Salvation, by “dwelling with Christ as a child of God,” realizes in the transformation of our humanity through forgiveness of sin and growth in holiness, culminating in the resurrection of the body on the last day. Pseudo-Macarius writes, “Just as the interior glory of Christ covered his body [on the Mount of Transfiguration] and shone completely, in the same way also in the saints the interior power of Christ in them, in that day [i.e. at the resurrection], will be poured out exteriorly upon their bodies. For even now, at this time, they are in their minds participators of his substance and nature.”
Finally, salvation also realizes in a restored and revitalized human community that especially draws life through its sharing in Christ’s Eucharistic body. St Cyril of Alexandria, in his Commentary on John, writes, “So the Mystery of Christ has come into being as a kind of beginning, a way for us to share in the Holy Spirit and in unity with God: all of us are made holy in that Mystery, as we have already shown. That we might, then, come together into unity with God and each other, and might ourselves be mingled as one, even though we stand apart individually in our souls and bodies by the differences we recognize in each of us, the Only-begotten contrived a way, devised by the wisdom that is his own and by the will of the Father: blessing those who believe in him by a single body – namely his own – through sacramental sharing, he made them into members of a single body with himself and with each other.”
But we cannot identify with Christ, participate in Christ, dwell with Christ, or become members of a single body with Christ and with each other – we can also think of “engrafting” (Rom 11:17, 24) or “putting on Christ” (Gal 3:27) – unless Christ, the Word that was “in the beginning with God” without whom nothing came to be, is also one of us, unless he has “become flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:2, 14). And at Christmas, we directly contemplate that this has happened (after all, the infant Jesus doesn’t yet do anything). I very much like the Anglican bishop Geoffrey Rowell’s Christmas Message from last year. He writes, “The creative Word of God enters into the heart of creation, taking our human nature, that being one with us he may know from the inside our human condition,” and quotes the seventeenth-century Anglican divine Mark Frank’s profound phrase, “by this day’s emptiness we all were filled.” And then Bishop Rowell quotes the poet, Richard Crashaw:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven on earth, and God in man!
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth,
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth!
I can’t think of a better description of the “event” of redemption – whose meaning will be fully revealed in the cross and resurrection – than that very last line. I hope that you’ll make it to church on Christmas, so that you might meditate on who Christ is, not simply what he does.
Well, what would you say if someone were to ask why they should go to church on Christmas?