Thursday, October 28, 2010

"And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed"

During the last week of September, Cathy and I were shopping in the Lowes in Dickson where we saw that the store was already putting up Christmas displays. (Thankfully, as a society we have apparently have moved beyond calling them, “holiday displays.)

I don’t think I have ever seen Christmas displays go up so early. But as we all know, the Christmas season is the major revenue season for almost every business. With the economy as it is, I suppose that businesses want the shopping season the begin as early as possible.

Have you ever wanted to get a “jump” on Christmas? Do you remember being a child and thinking that Christmas Day would just never get here?

Christmas Day was not celebrated by the early church. Easter was (and remains) the foremost Christian holy day, and two millennia ago, no one really knew what time of year Jesus was born. Almost certainly it was not in December since shepherds would not have been in the fields with their flocks in that month. The Eastern Church and the Coptics celebrate Christmas on different days than we do.

The most important thing about Christmas is not when it is, but what it is and what it means.

Christmas means “Immanuel,” God With Us. This is a name ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. When we affirm our faith that the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger was God in the flesh, then we easily see why Jesus is truly God With Us. This is Good News, indeed!

And yet we should not rush too quickly, like the shepherds, to the manger. For while the Gospel is Good News, it is good only because of the bad news that preceded it.

Jesus came to deliver us from our bondage to sin and death. That’s Good News! But the bad news is that we needed saving to begin with. Unless we confront the gravity of the human condition into which we are born we do not grasp the life ring God casts to us in the person and work of Christ.

That is why, in the passages for Advent, getting ready for Christmas is not the point. The point of the season is to prepare for the coming of Christ, not of Christmas. The passages of Advent present the imminent presence of God in the flesh as both awful (that is, “awe-full,” not bad) and wonderful.

"For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed," promised the Scriptures, and the glory of God can hardly be beheld impassively. One either runs to embrace the Lord or runs from him. Neutrality is not even possible.

So the passages for Advent typically include reminders that, absent God’s gracing presence, we mortals are lost in our sins. We are reminded that, “Christ has come, Christ will come again.” And his next advent will not be so innocently or unthreateningly accomplished.

Yet Advent also shows that by being born the baby in the manger God was not going on the offensive against us. He joins us an our ally. In fact, God’s kingly, overwhelming power is found there literally to be defenseless, so much so that Joseph and Mary had to flee the town to save Jesus’ life.

Is there power in such weakness? No, not in weakness per se. Jesus’ Godly power, or our own, is found neither in human in weakness nor in strength, but in faithfulness. It is God who is strong, not we mortals. Compared to the God’s strength, human weakness is inevitable but it is also inconsequential. God knows this, so he did not shrink from being born of woman, just as we are, nor from enduring the travails of human life in all its triumphs and disappointments, its joys and frustrations.

And at the end, death on a cross. But death could not hold Jesus because God is stronger than death.

Manger scenes became a popular artistic motif during the Renaissance. In almost all such paintings, the artists included the cross somewhere in the scenery. Sometimes it was on the horizon outside the manger. One artist, Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), painted a cross on a shelf on the manger’s wall, such as many homes would have had (left, click image for larger view).

Let us take a cue from those theologically-trained artists. They knew the connection between the manger and Calvary. So did Jesus. As his last trip to Jerusalem loomed, knowing what it portended, Jesus told the disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (Jn 12:27).

What is the meaning of Christmas? The meaning of Christmas is the cross.