Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas is Just as Important as Holy Week and Easter

A clergy colleague recently shared a memory from a Christmas Eve past. After making preparations for the service, he walked outside the church. He was startled to see Roman soldiers marching down the street. They were making their way to the Protestant church a block away where the evening's program was a Passion Play. On the eve of our Lord's Nativity - the time of the year when the Church's focus is most clearly centered on the Incarnation - this church was emphasizing the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord!

It's easy to find this inappropriate and even bizarre. But the truth is that many liturgical Christians also downplay the meaning and significance of the Incarnation. After all, our salvation was accomplished on Good Friday and Easter Day, not Christmas. So the Incarnation was merely a necessary prelude to the Paschal mystery. It follows from such reasoning that Christmas is of secondary importance to those other observances.

In a Christmas Eve sermon, Fr. John D. Alexander of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island invites us to rethink the idea that Christmas isn't as important as Holy Week and Easter, and that if humanity had not fallen into sin the Incarnation would never have happened. Here's part of what he said:

... the notion that without the Fall there would have been no Incarnation is not the Christian tradition’s only or last word on the subject. In the fourth century, for example, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote that “in the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.”

Beginning in the twelfth century, medieval Western theologians began to debate whether Christ would have come into the world even if Adam had not sinned and the Fall had not happened. Some theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, answered in the negative, arguing that if there had been no Fall, there would probably have been no Incarnation either; while others, such as Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus, answered in the affirmative, arguing that even in the absence of the Fall the Incarnation would very likely still have taken place.

Far from being a stereotypical case of logical hair-splitting along the lines of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle—which, by the way, is an early modern caricature rather than anything ever seriously debated in the Middle Ages—the question is one of enormous significance. It profoundly affects how we view not only the person and work of Christ, but also the nature and destiny of all creation. Duns Scotus argued, for example, that the Incarnation was the very purpose of creation. Christ’s coming into the world was so great and glorious "that it seems unreasonable to think that God would have forgone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned."

Long before Duns Scotus, the seventh-century Greek father Saint Maximus the Confessor elaborated a similar argument. The Incarnation, he wrote, should be regarded as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation. When God created the universe, he did so precisely so that he might become incarnate in it; and so he created it with all the goodness and beauty befitting a creation in which he himself might make his dwelling. Moreover, by becoming one of us, the Son of God shares in our temporal human life, so that united with him we—and all creation with us—might come to share in his eternal divine life.

The tradition represented by such disparate figures as Maximus the Confessor and John Duns Scotus thus understands the Incarnation as integral to God’s purposes in creation. Prior to and apart from the Fall, the divine plan required the Son of God to became incarnate in order to unite creation to himself, imbue it with his glory, and gather it into the eternal life of God’s kingdom.

According to this tradition, then, if humanity had not fallen into sin, there might not have been any need for Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection; but there would still have been an Incarnation. Even without Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there would still be Christmas. Now, none of this is meant to deny the reality of human sin or of our need for redemption. The good news, however, is that when we had fallen into sin, Christ stuck to the original plan and came down from heaven anyway, to redeem us and reconcile us to God.

It follows that Christmas need not be thought of as merely a logical prerequisite to the real thing, the truly saving events of Holy Week and Easter. It’s possible and permitted to believe that the Incarnation has its own independent place in God’s plan. One of the blessings of our Anglican tradition is its characteristic emphasis on the wonder and beauty of Christ’s incarnation considered in its own right. So let’s rejoice unabashedly in the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, and have no more talk of Christmas being secondary to Holy Week and Easter. Those feasts are indeed of central importance in the Christian year, but so is Christmas.


Andrei said...

In the Orthodox Church Pascha, or Easter is the Feast of Feasts because this is when Christ conquered death for us all.

There are 12 other great Feasts during the year and the Feast of the Nativity is one of these.

But Pascha is the most important

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Andrei.

St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, "The unassumed is the unhealed." In Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden makes a point that amplifies this statement:

"No more complete revelation of empathic love is possible than this: that God almighty shares our human frame, participates in our human limitations, enters into our human sphere. The empathic divine Physician is willing to come into the toxic sphere of the epidemic to share personally the diseased human condition."

No Incarnation means no personal sharing of the diseased human condition by God, no taking it into the divine life for its healing, no salvation. Without the Incarnation, there could be no Pascha, no Feast of Feasts. And so we rightly celebrate the wonder, beauty, and central importance of our Lord's Nativity in its own right.

C. Wingate said...

Even in the prayer book Easter is placed first: "But chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection[.]" And I tilt towards the Thomist answer (which is unusual for me). Given the divine foreknowledge I'm not sure that the question is genuinely meaningful.

But I would point out another level of importance which was driven home to me in listening to the local classical station playing Christmas music for a solid week. One of the albums in their rotation was from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and it had never been so apparent how much theology there is in Christmas, in a way that there is not in Easter. As they are not trinitarian I am long used to the way they alter the first verse of "Holy, Holy, Holy"; it had not occurred to me how many verses of the great Christmas hymns and carols would suffer under the same impulse. By they time they got through with it, "Joy to the World" was almost unrecognizable past the first line. I found myself shouting "heresy!" at the radio.

Easter may be the most important feast, but I think that the incarnation is the most important doctrine, or perhaps better, the most distinctive doctrine. It is the incarnation that gives the passion and the resurrection their force; after all, others die, and others are resurrected in scripture. The creed devotes almost half its text to the begetting of the Son and His incarnation. Therefore it is Christmas which bears the heavier burden of theology, and it is therefore Christmas whose hymns are most offensive to the heretical.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, C. Wingate. I think you're right that Christmas bears a heavy theological burden. J. I. Packer sums it up well:

"The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man – that the second person of the Godhead became the 'second man' (1 Cor 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human."

Apart from that staggering claim, the rest of the Christian story falls apart and the liberal theologians are right: Jesus was a just a great teacher who inspired people and was tragically killed by the political powers-that-be, but his "spirit" lives on in followers who try to live like he did. All of which begs the question: why Jesus and not another great, inspiring person?

Bryan Owen said...

Drawing on St. Isaac the Syrian, Bishop Kallistos Ware adds this:

"The Incarnation, says St Isaac, is the most blessed and joyful thing that could possibly have happened to the human race. Can it be right, then, to assign as cause for this joyful happening something which might never have occurred, and indeed ought never to have done so? Surely, St Isaac urges, God's taking of our humanity is to be understood not only as an act of restoration, not only as a response to man's sin, but also and more fundamentally as an act of love, an expression of God's own nature. Even had there been no fall, God in his own limitless, outgoing love would still have chosen to identify himself with his creation by becoming man" (The Orthodox Way).

Christopher said...

I recommend Patriarch Bartholomew's Nativity epistle as well as the works of St Symeon the New Theologian which make the same point about not making the Incarnation merely a sin-clean-up mechanism. Also, before the reforms of the Liturgical Mvmt, in piety, theology, and liturgy, it seems to me the Advent/Christmas cycle played a highly central role in Anglican formation both popular and official as pivotal to our self-understanding, just as say, the Cross does for Lutherans without denying that emphasis of one or the other or the Resurrection or the Ascension or the whole of the sweep of the Incarnation. We seem to have lost the mvmt of that cycle in a reemphasis of the Lent/Easter cycle. Ideally, both are vital.

If I were to characterize Anglican emphases that tend to capture the imagination of our poetry and such the most, it would be Nativity, Christ as Creator (after all, creation is by and through the Word as Maurice reminded us), and the Consummation without denying the import of other feasts of Christ.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the recommendations and for the comments, Christopher. Living as I do in the hyper-Protestant South, the Nativity of our Lord tends to be vastly overshadowed by the crucifixion (hence Passion Plays on Christmas Eve in some churches).

I've read elsewhere (perhaps James Griffiss) that a focus on the Incarnation is one of the unique characteristics of Anglicanism - an observation which dovetails nicely with your comments. We do well to find new ways to articulate that emphasis in the hope of capturing the imagination of a new generation for whom the Gospel is known largely through the lens of hyper-Protestantism, or for whom the Gospel message is unknown.

C. Wingate said...

Urban Holmes claimed (in What Is Anglicanism?) that Tillich would sardonically refer to the incarnation as "the Anglican heresy". (I've searched for years trying to find where Tillich may have actually said this in print, without success.)

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting, C. Wingate.

Speaking of Tillich, I once heard a story (don't know if it's true) about a time when Karl Barth was visiting New York City. Tillich was teaching at Union Theological Seminary at the time. There was a really thick fog one day, which prompted Barth to say: "I see that Professor Tillich is thinking."

C. Wingate said...

I've never understood the attraction of Tillich. I've tried reading him several times, but inevitably he asserts that "we" have problems that I don't have, and at that point I lose interest.