Christmas 2016

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All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

(The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom; H/T Aaron Linderman at The Guild Review)

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This always, for some obvious reasons, brings joy to my heart. It also brings a smile to my face.

Today is born of a Virgin He who holds the whole creation in His hand.
Today is born of a Virgin He who holds the whole creation in His hand.
Today is born of a Virgin He who holds the whole creation in His hand.
He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling clothes as a Child.

God who in the beginning established the heavens lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on His people in the wilderness is fed on milk at His mother’s breast.
The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men. The Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.

We worship Thy birth, O Christ.
We worship Thy birth, O Christ.
We worship Thy birth, O Christ.
Show us also Thy divine Theophany.

My Arabic is essentially non-existent, but here’s a rendition of the same hymn (I think) in a concert setting by an aging Lebanese Cantor who’s a real inspiration:

I sang this Saturday morning — in English, to different music, and not nearly as well.

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Let no one be so indevout, so ungrateful, so irreligious, as to say:  This is nothing new; it was heard long ago; Christ was born long ago.  I answer:  Yes, long ago and before long ago.

No one will be surprised at my words if he remembers that expression of the Prophet, in aeternum et ultra, “for ever and ever,” or “for ever and beyond it.”  Christ, then, is born not only before our times, but before all time. …

That this mysterious Nativity might to some extent be made known, Jesus Christ was born in time, born of flesh, born in flesh, the Word was made flesh.

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Tomorrow, therefore, we shall see the majesty of God, but with us, amongst us, not in Himself.  We shall see Majesty in humility, Power in weakness, the God-man. …

He chose a stable and a manger – yes, a despicable hut, a shed fit only for beasts – that we may know that He it is “Who raises up the poor one from the dunghill” [and] Who said, “Unless you be converted and become as this little child, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

(Bernard of Clairvaux via jbudziszewski’s blog)

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Michael Barone hosts Public Radio’s Pipe Dreams, a program featuring pipe organ music much of which is Christian sacred music. Yesterday morning, Indiana time, he hosted a live broadcast of the Festival of Lessons and Carols at King’s College.

He made what I consider a telling slip-up at the end, referring to the people who were leaving the Festival as returning to the real world.

“The real world.”

He’s far from the first to use that trope to distinguish the fallen world we inhabit from the foretaste of the real world, the world as God intended it, which we enter in worship at its best. Often, that trope is used to excuse all kinds of venality, price-gouging, adultery and the rest of the gamut — all as simply the way of “the real world.”

My spiritual trajectory has been shaped powerfully by C.S. Lewis, and particularly by The Great Divorce, an allegorical tale about a bus ride from hell to heaven. One of the powerful images was of the substantiality of heaven, the wraith-likeness of the visitors from hell, for whom merely walking across heavenly grass was difficult and painful.

One of the wraiths, on that basis, pours cold water on the idea of staying in heaven:

Narrator: “You don’t think of staying?”

Wraith: “That’s all propaganda. Of course there never was any question of our staying. You can’t eat the fruit and you can’t drink the water and it takes you all your time to walk on the grass. A human being couldn’t live here. All that idea of staying is only an advertisement stunt.”

For him, presumably, the real world is the hell to which he expects to return, where you can without effort or perseverance eat fruitoid, drink filtered and bottled water, and walk on the astroturf.

Eventually, the narrator — Lewis himself, it appears — was approached by his guide, George McDonald, who among other things said “Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”

It seemed like a good idea to start, as much as possible, getting ready to stay in reality, as by leaving Lessons and Carols with the regret of leaving the antechambers of reality and returning to something (relatively) ghostly and unreal.

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I wanted today’s blog to be all positive, warm, fuzzy and pious. But then a teachable moment arrived:

The pastor of one of America’s largest megachurches stirred up Christmas controversy after preaching that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth is not crucial to the Christian faith.

“If somebody can predict their own death and resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world,” Andy Stanley said in a Dec. 4 sermon at North Point Community Church, which draws 36,000 attendees across six locations in suburban Atlanta. “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

(Kate Shellnutt, Washington Post) That (fortunately) isn’t Stanley’s final word on the topic. He tap-dances around and even makes a decent point or two.

But the idea that Christianity hinges (solely) on the resurrection of Jesus — with his having predicted his death and resurrection as proof that he’s someone really special — is wrong. Al Mohler, after obscuring the view with inerrantist slippery slopery, gets more or less to the point:

[W]ithout the virgin birth, you end up with a very different Jesus than the fully human, fully divine savior ….

(Emphasis added)

That Jesus was fully God and fully human isn’t a pointless dogma — adiaphora as compared to sinlessness, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. His humanity is necessary because “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.” (Gregory Nazianzus) His deity is necessary because God very concretely reconciled humanity to deity, to make it possible for us to become partakers of the divine nature.

If Stanley is merely trying to say that maybe you can “get saved” without grokking the virgin birth, I have no particular problem with it. But he apparently keeps sowing confusion as a sort of megachurch Pope Francis. He really should oughta try to cut it out and stop snarking at people who fault him for it.

And he ought to consider this, too: instead of pondering and pandering about how little people need to believe to be Christians, in a sort of bartering with God, try to impart the fullness of the Christian faith.

Oh. That’s right. He hasn’t got it to impart. Never mind.

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“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.