Archives For Incarnation

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

Echoes of Christmas

December 29, 2015 — 10 Comments

Rosary Basilica LourdesI love greeting people with “Merry Christmas” after the day itself has passed.

Most people are surprised—probably thinking that I slept through the celebration. Many Christians, however, respond with their own best wishes, in recognition that the celebration of Jesus’ nativity marks the beginning of a season of wonder.

The celebration of the Incarnation miracle is far too wondrous to be confined to a single day.

People often ask “how was your Christmas?” By that, most are inquiring as to whether it was enjoyable.

It is a profound question, if one truly reflects upon it.

As a child, I must confess that the quality of my “Christmas” was probably determined to large extent by the presents I received. I don’t remember many of the particular gifts—these many years later—but I do recall the anticipation I felt as we awaited Christmas Day and the glorious unwrapping.

As a parish pastor my perceptions of a “good” Christmas were determined in large part by the number and enthusiasm of the individuals attending the season’s special worship services. (I am not proud, of course, to confess this.)

In later, semi-retired days, I gauge the joy of each Christmas by the time spent with family. To have all the kids and grandkids near is magnificent. To be able to connect with our “extended family” is icing on the cake.

Obviously, I’m not alone in measuring the quality of my “Christmas experience” by the presence of family.

At the close of the First World War, as C.S. Lewis had finished recuperating from his wounds, he longed to be able to return home to Ireland to celebrate with his father and brother. The Armistice had been signed a month earlier, but delays prevented his arrival by December 25th. Nevertheless, he did manage to arrive for the Christmas season, as Warnie recorded in his diary two days later.

A red letter day. We were sitting in the study about eleven o’clock this morning when we saw a cab coming up the avenue. It was Jack! He had been demobilized, thank God. Needless to say there were great doings. He is looking pretty fit . . . In the evening there was bubbly for dinner in honour of the event: the first time I have ever had champagne at home.

Family can be a wonderful thing, although there seem to be an increasing number of people in our day who are a scourge to their families. My heart goes out to those who have lost their loved ones, or who have never experienced familial love in the first place.

These holiday seasons—filled with laughter and champagne for most—can be a barren emotional wasteland for many.

It is good for us all to remember that fact, and remain vigilant to draw the lonely into the light of our family campfires.

The Deep Joy of Christmas

I have said that as a child, I relished the anticipation of my gifts. Later in life I have focused on other matters in assessing whether or not my Christmas has been an exceptional one.

The fact is that the foundation for all of my happiness comes from an awareness of Christmas’ true meaning.

In a word, Emmanuel. God with us.

For me and my family, it simply would not be Christmas if we were not able to gather with our sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Jesus’ birth. That said, for believers in some Islamic and Buddhist nations where Christians are not free, the miracle of Christmas rings no less true.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, and the constancy of Christ’s grace are such an indivisible part of my life, that I often take them for granted. And so it is during Christmas.

The gift-giving and family can occupy the forefront of my thoughts. However, it is only because of the life-giving sacrifice of that innocent Child that events in this life possess the potential to have eternal significance.

Jesus came in humility. He came to serve. He came to suffer. He came to offer his own pure life to redeem our imperfect and corrupt lives.

That’s what Christmas is about, and that is why it is too wondrous for its celebration to be relegated to one brief day.

Confusing Creeds

November 7, 2013 — 6 Comments

Nicene CreedThere are a couple of sentences in the traditional translation of the basic Christian creeds (statements of faith) that lead to confusion.

Due to the literary examples below, Christian readers may find the following discussion more interesting than non-Christians—but everyone interested in clarity versus confusion should find something intriguing.

The creeds offer a prime example of why it is absolutely crucial to ensure that gradual shifts in language do not undermine or blur the intended meaning of a given sentence. To illustrate, consider this line from the Nicene Creed.

. . . [Jesus] who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. (1662, Anglican Book of Common Prayer).*

The potential confusion here lies in the archaic usage of the word “of.” Whose Holy Spirit are we referring to? Mary’s innate holiness and purity? The educated Christian may stumble over that dated phrase—which is still used in some denominations—but a person not acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity might easily misinterpret it as a Maryological, rather than Christological, confession.

Let’s consider two more recent translations, and note how the first restores the intent of the original writers. The second of these commonly used translations reflects the hand(s) of “politically correct” revisers.

For us and for our salvation he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (1975 International Consultation on English Texts version).

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. (1988, English Language Liturgical Consultation version).

We will consider a second example momentarily, but let’s first look at something C.S. Lewis wrote about reflecting on the importance of the creeds. He noted that too often we rattle through the words without considering their significance. This is unfortunate.

In an essay entitle “On Forgiveness,” Lewis describes a personal epiphany and offers counsel to those tempted to take familiar words for granted.

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.”

But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

As usual, the Oxford don was correct. However, just as good translations possess the power to inspire, so too poor or antiquated translations exercise the ability to confuse.

Here is the promised second example.

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures . . . (1662).

Ah, I understand, think the uncatechized, the Bible teaches us that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. Well, yes it does, but that is not the sense in which the second phrase is intended. Here, “according to the Scriptures,” means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were all accomplished in accordance with the promises of the Word of God.

In other words, “just as was promised in the Garden of Eden and foretold by the prophets, Jesus won victory when he rose from the grave in accordance with the loving plan of God the Father.” The newer versions make that fact only slightly clearer.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures . . . (1975 and 1988).

Perhaps a future revision will replace “in accordance with,” using something like “as foretold in” or “fulfilling the scriptural promises.”

Some of us worship in congregations using a variant of the seventeenth century creed, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that most of them have at least replaced “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” with “both the living an the dead.” After all, we wouldn’t want people to think that one’s salvation is dependent upon their speed.

_____

* This slightly contemporized version of the creed has already remedied the terribly confusing term “Holy Ghost,” which evokes images of disembodied souls and hauntings.

It’s Still Christmas

December 29, 2012 — 10 Comments

nativity iconMerry Christmas!

One of the sad things about living in a secular nation is that people understand very little about the real meaning of Christmas. For example, many people take their trees down on 26 December, mistakenly thinking Christmas is “over.” In reality, the Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus only begins on Christmas Day!

The commercial world celebrates the season of Advent and deceptively calls it “Christmas.” These weeks, which should mark a spiritual preparation akin to Lent, are instead transformed into a frantic race to accumulate the perfect gifts to show others just how much we value each of them. And, since we love our family and close friends, there is a constant temptation to be far more extravagant in our gift giving than we can afford.

Returning to the season of Christmas, in which we find ourselves this day . . . we discover a brief occasion to focus our spiritual reflections on the singular Christmas miracle, the Incarnation. God becoming a human being. The Word through whom all things were created, becoming a mortal like the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve fashioned in his own likeness.

Christmas is, indeed, a glorious season.

C.S. Lewis had many insights into the Incarnation miracle. It is most certainly worthy of our serious attention. If it did not actually happen, Jesus should be dismissed altogether, for he claimed to be one with our heavenly Father. However, as Lewis declared in Miracles, “If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the Earth.”

One of the great literary treasures of the world is a precious book written before the year Anno Domini 318. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a treatise called “On the Incarnation,” which makes great reading and is readily available online. A fairly modern translation was written by Sister Penelope Lawson, an Anglican nun.

Sister Penelope prevailed upon C.S. Lewis to write an introduction to her translation, in which he said, “This is a good translation of a very great book.” The full volume, complete with Lewis’ outstanding preface, is available. Here is just one of his gems:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

Still, as wonderful as Lewis’ introductory comments are, the greatest treasures here are the bishop’s teachings about Jesus. To whet your appetite, taste the following wisdom from Athanasius’ own introduction to his work:

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

You can read the entire work at this site. Have a blessed Christmas season!