The Great Turn

Thursday, Feb 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It occurs forty days after Nativity. There is a twofold logic to the feast that is more detailed than I want to get into in this essay, but this article offers a good overview.

Today most Christian communions consider Christmas to be a twelve day event stretching from Nativity (Dec. 25) to Epiphany (Jan. 6). This is an historical accident that, to a certain extent, has to do with various calendar systems. An oversimplified version is as follows: Certain older calendar systems were (and are, because so-called “Old Calendarists” such as certain Russian Orthodox groups and the Coptic Church) off twelve days from the Gregorian Calendar that we use today in our secular lives. December 25 on the old calendar is Jan. 6 on the new.

Long before that Christmas was a 40 day event (much like Easter, which is a 50 day event from Pascha to Pentecost). For instance, in 380 Egeria said that the Feast of Presentation was observed forty days after Nativity and marked the end of the Christmas season. Emperor Justinian codified many of the practices that had been normative in the church but never written down, and he said that the sermon for this Feast had to be focused on the Prayer of Simeon, or Nunc Dimitis, as it is called in Latin.

A forty day Christmas season makes a great deal more sense than a twelve day season because forty days typical marks a great salvation type event in scripture. Even though we no longer celebrate the Feast of Presentation as the end of Christmas, it offers a clue in one of the great turns in the modern Revised Common Lectionary.

For several Sundays after Christmas and Epiphany, the appointed scripture texts focus on “light”: A light has dawned, a great light is coming out of the east, let your light shine, etc. This is a season of simply reveling in the revelation of the light, so to speak. And then, somewhere along the line, the focus changes and we begin to hear texts of repentance. For a few weeks we look backward at the birth of Christ, and then, somewhere along the line, although there is no precise moment in the lectionary when this occurs, we turn around and start looking forward to Lent. The texts during this period might be called pre-repentance texts. Micah tells us we need to act justly, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, for instance.

This great turn in the lectionary roughly corresponds to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In Europe this feast is often called Candelmas. It is a service for the blessing of the candles and a service of candles. It is the final hurrah for our forty day period of reveling in the light of Christ. If we think seasonally, there is a palpable sense that winter is nearly over and we must now prepare for spring. The light of our candles is slowly recognized as a paltry prefiguring of the great dawning of the true day, the Dayspring.

This realization calls for action! We must get ready. We must evaluate our lives and measure them by the ruler of God’s truth. We must do a strength test and see where we are strong, but also where we are week and need to beef up. In this way we prepare for Lent, so that this forty day spiritual boot camp can be used most effectively as we prepare for the spiritual battle of Holy Week.

The Really Hard Part

It started with a rereading of Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith, I have re-engaged with Protestant theology and thinking in a manner that I have not done for over a decade. What I have found most striking is the differing emphasis on the individual and the society.

From an Orthodox perspective, the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of the individual. When that is taken care of the societal and cosmic effects of sin and death will take care of themselves. Orthodox theology prides itself in being a cosmic theology, and yet the cosmic implications of the gospel begin with the person and grow outward from there.

From a Western perspective (and this is largely true of both the Latin and Protestant branches of the Western church), the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of society while the transformation of the person is largely taken for granted as an act of pure grace. (For by grace you have been saved by faith, not of works, lest you should boast.) There is a perceived duality of divine and human, of grace and effort, that is largely absent from Orthodoxy, and the effect of this duality in Protestantism is to accept as a given that God will transform individuals apart from human effort. The human effort is then focused on serving the world, evangelism, and through these things, the transformation of society.

It is the epistle lesson for Dec 24/25, Proper I that brought this to mind. Titus 2:11-14 says,

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One thing I love about this text is that the author calls Jesus Christ “the grace of God.” It’s not so much that Christ offers grace, he is Grace.

This is a text that I have run into quite often in Orthodox writing because it lays out the purpose and path of salvation. We must renounce impiety and passions and we must live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Those aren’t future things, but the expectation of the here and now as we await the revelation of the “glory.” The Hebrew word for glory is “shekinah,” is frequently used in this particular sense in Hebrew scripture as a synonym for God. The “Grace of God” has appeared, and it turns out that the “Grace of God” is one in the same as the “Glory of God.”

In the Old Testament the Glory of God is often a frightening thing implying potential judgment, but here there is no judgment in the angry or frightening sense, only “Grace,” accomplished through God’s purification of his people.

This is in contrast (and I think that in the context of the two very different approaches to the Christian life in the East and West that I described above, you could call it a stark contrast) to Titus that we find this in the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 9:4-5.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Back when I  was a Presbyterian I would have likely treated this as a social justice passage, but seeing it with Orthodox eyes, there is no command to do anything found here, it is rather a description of what Christ, the Glory of God, will do when he reveals his Glory. It is a description of the kingdom (ie, God’s pure grace) in contrast to Titus’ description of the things we’re supposed to do while we wait for for the pure grace of “the blessed hope.”

I don’t believe we should make the contrast too stark. The personal emphasis in Titus and the societal emphasis in Isaiah are two sides of the same coin. But as I have read these Nativity texts this week, what struck me more than anything else is the difference in primary emphases of the two great traditions of the divided Church.

Which is the really hard part of salvation and which is more a matter of patient waiting because it is a description of the blessed hope? Well, in fact both are. In the end the Gospel is simply too big for us to effectively comprehend. And we will not be able to just grow into it either, the bigness of the Gospel is so big that we will ultimately have to wait for the bigness of the Kingdom to see how it all fits together.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

Christmas, Day Ten

For a week the snow has hung heavy on the evergreens outside my office window.

To the south of the house, the cardinals and squirrels – gathered beak to jowl – sit below the bird feeder trying to fend off the below-zero weather with extra food. The cat slinks in the distance, hoping for a chance to pounce.

Can there be a more iconic picture of Christmas than cardinals in the snow? But the cat, always slinking just beyond our field of view, reminds us that the lion has not yet curled up with the lamb. Nativity may be a season of hope but the weeks after solstice are hard-time in a sin-sick world.

Certain critics remind us every year that Jesus wasn’t born in December (I’ve heard good cases for both May and August) as if this dislocation of the kairos and the chronos of his birth somehow brings disrepute on Christianity. But the critics miss the point. Winter is a season of treacherous beauty, of death, despair and exquisite glory. Hope is easy and shallow when the apple tree is breaking with bounty. In contrast, what better way to illustrate the grandeur of God’s gift than to swaddle it in the bitterness of winter?