Saturday, January 4, 2014

The merciful salvation of Christmas

This Christmas I went only to the Christmas Day Eucharist; I love this service, and I'm just as happy, to be honest, to skip Midnight Mass.  One reason I love it is that you usually get the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which I adore hearing on Christmas - but this time they used the Christmas II readings instead, so we got Luke's Nativity.  (Fortunately, I did hear the Prologue at Lessons & Carols the following Sunday; it's "the Last Gospel," read by the rector, and the climax of all the previous lessons!   Which is always perfectly splendid.)

Anyway, I read this piece at Fleming Rutledge's Generous Orthodoxy on Christmas Eve.  Here's the last part of it (my bolding):
In his new book about the Gospel of John, [Bishop Spong] declares that the milieu of the Gospel is not Hellenistic, but Jewish--as if he had personally discovered what has been common knowledge in biblical scholarship for at least sixty years. What struck me especially, though, was his repetition of the same ideas that he has been pushing for decades (with some degree of success, much to the annoyance of those of us who wish we had his genius for marketing). He is out to exterminate "salvation theology" and "atonement theology." He does not believe the human race and the creation need to be saved from anything. I am only slightly exaggerating in saying that he thinks the traditional apostolic faith is dangerous for our self-esteem. No one ever sought esteem more ravenously than Bishop Spong; he is famous for it. One wag said that his career did not belong to the history of theological inquiry; it belonged, like the career of the Sitwells, to the "history of publicity." In that regard, Spong has done a very effective job. My friend reported that during her retreat at the SSJE, one of the visiting participants burst out with a diatribe against "atonement theology."

Can it be that anyone could think this world is not in need of saving? Last week I saw a photo of a Syrian man holding the body of his little son, killed in a bomb blast. The father was howling. Howling. Yesterday  the New York Times published a very impressive piece of investigative journalism about the abysmal and inhumane conditions in the garment factories of Bangladesh where--get this--the US government pays megamillions (billions probably) to have clothes made for the Park Service, the Marine Corps, the Capitol security guards....all this evil done in our name and for our benefit, on the backs of poor, voiceless people in a distant country about which we know and care little.

A friend who writes pretty good poetry sent me a poem yesterday. I can't find it right now in the flurry of boxes, cards, decorations, etc. but it was something like this: "Lord, I don't feel like a great sinner, a little person with my little doings...." I think a lot of people feel that way, and it prevents us from understanding the seriousness of  the larger human predicament. "Into such a world as this" the Son of God became incarnate.

Isaiah writes, "We have been in our sins a long time; and shall we be saved?" (64:5) The message of Christmas is that, in the words of aged Simeon, "mine eyes have seen thy salvation" (Luke 2:30). If that be "salvation history," make the most of it.

Reading this ahead of time made me pay attention to whatever "salvation" themes might appear during the course of the Christmas Day liturgy - and I was surprised to hear them everywhere!  Here's another example of the "peeling of the onion" of the liturgy; we hear something new - something more and something deeper - every year, thanks to the repetition of the readings and prayers.

The Collect:
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 62:6-12 (which I don't actually remember ever hearing before!):
Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
The LORD has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have labored;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the LORD,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
The LORD has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
"See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him."
They shall be called, "The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the LORD";
and you shall be called, "Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken."

And especially, Titus 3:4-7, which is absolutely and perfectly to the point (although again I really dislike the thing about being "justified by grace"; that is just not, for me, what's happening at all):
When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

In was in the hymns, too:

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet saviour
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.
The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.

The first three verses of "I Saw Three Ships" are these:
1. I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

2. And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.

3. Our Saviour Christ and his lady
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

As noted here, the final verse of Personent Hodie in English is this:
On this day angels sing;
with their song earth shall ring,
praising Christ, heaven's King,
born on earth to save us;
peace and love he gave us.

Rutledge wrote a followup to the original piece, which I read later:
Apropos of Advent and Christmas, I received an email from the curate at our church, Dane Boston, today:
Christmas becomes such a soggy, saccharine, sentimental mess if it is not accompanied with a serious, sober look at ourselves and our world.

I've been thinking lately about the first line of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, of all things: "Marley was dead: to begin with...This  must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate." Gently tweaked, I think that's the preface to the Christmas Gospel: "We were dead: to begin with." Only when we've got that down does the wonderful story of Life incarnate coming to our world of death have any real meaning.
Isn't that wonderful? (See Ephesians 2:4-5).

It's just remarkable, I think, that a person can feel a piercing great joy and a perfect kind of ecstasy - at the very same time she's taking this "sober, serious look at ourselves and the world."  One can rejoice greatly for all the world - even as one knows the world is not nearly what it should be, and is sorrowing with those who sorrow.

I'm not as big on Reformation theology as somebody like Rutledge is; I'm an Incarnation girl, myself, and prefer the merciful salvation of Christmas to any other understanding of atonement.

One reason I feel evangelical these days, in fact, is because of my continuing hope that this great joy can overcome that great sorrow - just as the light overcame the darkness.

Lastly, I want to just leave, without comment the beautiful Bidding Prayer from Lessons & Carols, penned in 1918 by Eric Milner-White, a brilliant Anglican writer of prayers and collects (more on it, and him, later):
Beloved in Christ, in this Christmastide, let it be our care and delight to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in the manger.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this holy Child; and let us make this place glad with our carols of praise.

But first, let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for the mission and unity of the Church for which he died, and especially in this country and within this city.

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless; the hungry and the oppressed; the sick and those who mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother, and all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us:

Our Father...

(Can I just point out that many people from other traditions churches say they are envious of the beauty of Anglican liturgy?  We would all do well to appreciate it more deeply ourselves, I do believe....)

No comments: