When Time Stands Still?

A Prayer for the First (and only) Sunday of Christmas, 2012
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church

Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Word, baby of Bethlehem, we come to you today with hearts full of joy and thankfulness for the riches you have showered upon us this Christmas season: for family, friends, food, and fellowship, for the exchange of gifts which knits us closer to our loved ones, for the more glorious exchange we have experienced in worship in recent days and weeks, as we bring our praises and our hearts before you and you give us your own presence in return.  We thank you for this opportunity to rest our bodies and refresh our hearts as we prepare to take on the challenges of a new year.  

And yet, Lord, we come to you also with hearts aching inwardly, sometimes weary of the world and burdened by its multitude of griefs, and weighed down by a hundred private cares of our own.  We like to imagine Christmas as a day when ordinary business stops,  when time stands still, when all the world holds its breath in memory of that day two thousand years ago when history turned the corner; we yearn to experience Christmas as a foretaste of eternity, transcending time in the midst of time.  And yet how insistently time presses itself upon us, how impossible it proves to shut out the world, in all its mundanity and its madness!  Stores open their doors early on Boxing Day for shoppers craving ever more stuff; investors rush to resume their trading; politicians return to Washington to continue their interminable squabbling and posturing while America’s fiscal cliff looms before them.  Duty keeps forecasters and emergency workers at their posts on Christmas Day as storms, fueled by a changing climate, batter Britain with floods and sweep through the American South with blizzards and tornadoes.  For hundreds of thousands of families in the Philippines, Christmas just means another can of cold food, shivering in a makeshift shelter, wondering how to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by a typhoon. For grieving mothers in Newtown, Connecticut, sitting bewildered by the graves of their children, Christmas brings only a redoubling of the pain, while elsewhere in the US, new shootings are reported on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile, for grieving mothers in Syria or Afghanistan, Christmas is just one more day of bombings and bloodshed, and for a billion worldwide struggling in the deepest poverty, neither rest nor a feast is a luxury that can be contemplated.  Truly, Lord, we walk by faith and not by sight, confessing that the world has been reborn in the birth of Christ, when all around us it seems still to be groaning.  


And yet it is no different than the first Christmas, when the peaceful dawn in Bethlehem was so soon shattered by the tramp of boots, the ring of iron, the screams of children, when throughout Palestine, the days, weeks, and years after Christ’s birth brought more business as usual—soldiers abusing, tax collectors extorting, leaders plotting, peasants starving, criminals dying on crosses outside the city gate.  

Jesus, Glory of Israel, make yourself known to your church this Christmas and in the new year before us.  You have promised to call for yourself a new people, heirs of the promises of Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and yet when we look around us at the church all we see is a bunch of squabbling siblings, unable even to understand one another, much less agree, on issues such as women’s ordination or homosexuality.  You are the light of the world—shed the light of truth upon us in the midst of our confusion.  Feed the sheep who hunger for your word, in this church and throughout the churches of this land.  Strengthen the shepherds who are to lead and guide, especially Justin Welby, as he assumes the see of Canterbury; may your word be a light unto his path in a time of darkness and uncertainty.  

Christ, Desire of the Nations, make your rule felt among the rulers of the earth this Christmas and in the new year before us.  We repent of the foolish leaders we often elect, that their hearts are far from you and their lips do not honor your name.  We thank you for the witness of Queen Elizabeth, who reminded the nation and the commonwealth on Christmas Day of your blessed birth, and called upon us to give our hearts to you.  May many of those in power heed that call, especially now in the UK, as leaders forge ahead with plans for gay marriage, ignoring the voices of your churches, and as, throughout the developed world, politicians try to balance budgets by shielding the wealthy and powerful and abandoning the poor and weak.  In these days of violence, Prince of Peace, teach us to beat our guns into ploughshares, and our missiles into pruning hooks.  We are not naive; we know that peace is not easy in a world of sin, but, emboldened by faith in your promises, give us the imaginations needed to make peace a reality. 

Emmanuel, God-with-us, rule in all our hearts today.  Fill the doubting with faith, the fearful with hope, the lonely with love.  Lord, for each member of this congregation today, we pray that you would so fill us with the awareness of your presence, the comfort of your grace, the fire of your love, that we would be filled to overflowing, no longer obsessed with receiving the attention and affection we need, but eager to give it to others who need it.  On Christmas, we seek in vain in the world around us for that foretaste of eternity, that sign that the fullness of time has come, but by your grace, we can find it within our hearts, in moments of worship and fellowship with one another, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.  Help us, as we face this new year, to draw strength from that peace in our hearts, and to carry it out into the world, that all eyes might see your salvation.


Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in  the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Come, Desire of Nations Come . . .

I won’t try to offer some profound or uplifting Christmas reflection, since I don’t have one, I’m afraid.  Instead, these stunning lyrics, among the richest of any Christmas hymn (unfortunately, all five verses are very rarely sung) are well worth meditating on and rejoicing in:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

“A Child Has Been Born Unto Us”—The Miracle of Natality

While reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition today, I came across the following remarkable passage at the end of the chapter on “Action.”  Despite her deep antipathy toward Christianity, her reflections here seemed remarkably apropos and thought-provoking for Christmas Eve: 

“If left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death.  It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life, which in its turn, as we saw, interrupted and interfered with the cycle of the biological life process.  The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction were it not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though thye must die, are not born in order to die but in order t begin.  Yet just as, from the standpoint of nature, the rectilinear movement of man’s life-span between birth and death looks like a peculiar deviation from the common natural rule of cyclical movement, thus action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle.  In the language of natural science, it is the ‘infinite improbability which occurs regularly.’  Action is, in fact the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth, whose insights into this faculty can be compared in their originality and unprecedentedness with Socrates’ insights in to the possibilities of thought, must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.  

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted  It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born.  Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box.  It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born unto us.'”

What is God?

On Christmas Eve (or shortly after it had passed, to be precise), brooding in the dark mystery and majesty of the Midnight Mass of Christmas, I found myself, for whatever reason, recalling the fourth question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, drilled indelibly into my head a dozen years ago: 

Q. What is God?

A: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

In that moment, surrounded by the darkness of the night and the brightness of the lights, inhaling the fragrance of frankincense, with songs of incarnation in the air and signs of incarnation on the altar, this definition struck me, for the first time, as perfectly ludicrous.  What worse way to define the God of the Bible could you possibly choose?  To start with the abstract and objectifying “What” instead of the concrete and personal “Who” was demeaning enough, but then to proceed to treat this living and active God, sharper than a two-edged sword, at once ineffable and loving Paternity, enfleshed Word, and life-giving Spirit, as a set of reified properties?  Perhaps it was no coincidence, I mused, that many of the Westminster Divines eschewed the observance of Christmas–only a group of Christians who ignored the holiday of the Incarnation could be so oblivious as to its message about God.  If I might be so bold, the event of Christmas would suggest something more like this:

Q: Who is God?

A: God is a spirit who became human flesh, the infinitely condescending, King in a manger, the Eternal born in the fulness of time, the Unchangeable subjected to the change of history, in His being with us and for us, His Wisdom that made us and remade us by its foolishness, His power to become impotent, His holiness displayed among sinners, His justice crucified by the unjust, His goodness to his murderers, His truth proclaimed by a lonely Galilean.


PS: Dang I’ve become a Barthian!  Must be something about the air here. 

PPS: I recognize of course that there is a place for metaphysical language about God, but I don’t think it should be the first thing we say about him, as it is in the WSC.

The God in the Manger

At my wife’s suggestion, I recently dug up a little piece of “creative writing” I did a few years ago for Doug Jones’s Theology of the Body class. It’s a rewrite of a crucial section from Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, and although I’m not terribly fond of anything I wrote three years ago (and struck by how foreign the writing style is!), I hope it still makes for a fun and edifying Christmas meditation.


No more cows gurgling out their last breaths as their blood stains the marble altars. No more oxen led forth to the slaughter, dismembered to feed the god. The god is in the manger now, where the oxen come to feed.

The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids slew their cows to appease that fireball in the sky and that lazy channel of brown water which sprawled across their sandy land. But not content with these lofty objects of devotion, they groveled on marble floors before their sacred cats or fish goddesses.

To their credit, many of these Egyptian idols were perhaps alive. What about the pagans of Palestine, who worshipped little clay idols or poles stuck in the ground? The Sidonians did homage to their favorite statue, Molech, by heating his iron hands red-hot and then bringing him an offering far more beautiful than any cow or pigeon. A young infant without blemish was carried into the slaughterhouse of the god so that the idol too could have a chance to hold the lovely child. The onlookers watched in religious ecstasy while the sounds of the baby’s screams mixed with the bacon-like sizzle of its smooth skin on the fiery iron. Perhaps the god liked the smell of bacon.

But at least they combined a healthy dose of masochism with their sadism. No one can accuse the priests of Baal with lack of religious fervour, dancing around in a drunken frenzy, lopping off bits of their flabby bodies and pouring out their blood on the parched earth in an impassioned plea for their god to pour out fire for them.

But the rational Greeks, in their clean white clothes and clean white temples with their nude white statues, surely their minds were set on things above? Hypocrites. They philosophized about the Good while their white temples ran red with the blood of bulls sacrificed to a serial rapist who turned his conquests into cows or shrubs. His brother was little better, kidnapping his niece to be his mistress in the Land of the Dead, and only turning her loose for a few months each year to make the flowers bloom and inspire nature with new life.

To all these pious pagans, blinded by their earthward gaze, God presented an image they could not ignore. God took on sinews, his veins ran with blood, and the earth which He had formed from nothing he now formed into Himself. Creation which had served as idols for the sons of men now took its proper place to serve the Son of Man. The flaming sun quenched its rays and put on robes of black to mourn his death; life-giving water poured from his side to baptize the nations, while two small fish, torn into a thousand basketfuls of morsels, fed his faint disciples. For him, too, a pole is stuck in the ground, a prop on which to hang his bloodied flesh. Infants are brought before Christ too, but he welcomes them with open arms, not greedy hands, and marks them as his own with water, not fire. Christ also is bundled off to Hades, but his return brings new life for a springtime that never ends.


This is the Incarnation, the Christmas story. This is God bringing himself down to our level. Infinite spirit becomes a lump of dirt, sleeps in straw, rides an ass, eats crusty bread with bunch of convicts and converts it into excrement, pours out blood, tears, toil and sweat so that the blinded, self-satisfied, juvenile inhabitants of this terrestrial ball might get the message. Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image made in the form of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals and creeping things—beetles, cats, vultures, or sacred cows. So he gave them what they wanted: an image made in the form of corruptible man, water, wine, and crusty bread.


The Incarnation is part of God’s lesson plan, an unforgettable object lesson that God, the great teacher, uses to teach the lazy ignorant pupils of this world about his glory. The fire-filled heavens and the wine-dark sea, in all their majestic expanse, fell short of teaching men the glory of the Lord. The revolution of the seasons, with their riot of fruit trees and flowers, the amber waves of grain and the vineyards heavy with grapes could not convince them of God’s providential care. So God at last taught them Himself, face to face, in the form of a lowly carpenter from Galilee, a carpenter who holds the Pleiades in his hand.

While Christ walked and talked, ate and drank, slept, wept, or prayed, Christ also upheld the universe, governed the tides, beheld all the works of men, and spoke face to face with his Father. For the human flesh of Jesus that housed a human soul also housed the eternal Word. In Christ infinite and finite, heaven and earth came together, so that Christ was at once bounded in human flesh and also bounded all the universe within himself.

Unravel this paradox, please. When Christ asked the crowds clustering around him, “Who touched me?” didn’t he already know? When he lifted a cup of water to his mouth, was he not already upholding that cup and sustaining the life-giving power of the water within it? When he looked up to see his disciples coming towards him, did he not already behold with his divine vision all men upon earth? Christ forfeited none of these powers when he clothed them with skin, bones, and hair, yet he lived among us as one of us.

When he wished to build a table, he used his hands and shaped the wood with human tools. When he wished to speak, his lips and tongue formed his breath into the guttural consonants of Hebrew and Aramaic. When he wished to die, he bled, he gasped, he hung his head and went cold like countless millions before him. Somehow Christ sacrificed neither his heavenly power nor his earthy weakness, but dwelt both beyond his body and within it. No piece of his divine power was chipped away when he became man, nor was there any stain of weakness on it. No, it was the other way around. Man was made strong, human flesh was purified by contact with the eternal Word. The sun does not cease to shine in the darkness, but makes the gloom bright with its rays. So the presence of God himself illumined all the world and all mankind with its glorious rays.


So then in his human body, Christ did the works of a man, eating, sleeping, talking and breathing as any other man, so that there could be no question over whether he was truly enfleshed. The Gnostics, then, and all such heretics, must not have read the Gospel accounts, with their talk of Christ’s thirst and hunger, his touch and his spit, his blood and his sweat. Yet because this flesh was the home of God himself, its works were far more than merely human works. It was like a sponge soaked in Godness, ready to pour forth the works of divinity at any moment. And so these two hands sutured a severed ear with no stitches or superglue, returned the light of creation into darkened eye-sockets without the use of any lasers, endlessly replicated the molecules of five pieces of bread and two small fish, and transformed H2O into grape-flavored C2H6O, without a centrifuge or any laboratory rats. When Christ’s vocal cords vibrated, they probably made about the same sound that he heard when Peter’s vibrated. But Christ’s breath had the power to halt the fierce breath of the tempest, to recall breath to lifeless lungs, and to banish the spirits who held a young boy in bondage. By their fruits you shall know them, Christ himself said, but who ever saw a tree like his? The leaves and bark were man’s, but the fruit was that of God himself.

Thus the invisible God shined through the shell of human flesh and human life, as through a veil, making known the presence of God in man and among men.


The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids may have watched for millennia for proof that their pharaohs were sons of the gods, but it only took the centurion a few hours to whisper in wonder, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”