Today seems like as good of a day as any to begin again. It has been almost two months since I last posted and quite a bit has happened. Classes finished rapidly, ending with the best gpa I have had at CSL, and my wife and I were whisked away to the east coast to begin our internship year known as a vicarage. Needless to say life has been busy but, to be honest, it has been nothing short of wonderful. Not only are we close to my wife’s family but the congregation of which we have become a part is more than a blessing. From day one we were welcomed with open arms and although it hasn’t quite been three weeks it feels like home.
While today is just another day at the office trying to plan out the next few days, get some reading done, and hopefully work on some sermonizing, it is also a day that has caused me to stop and think. Growing up, this time of year wasn’t always the easiest. We never had much money and the holidays always have a way, at least in my life, of bringing out the worst in situations. Christmases, like most other holidays, always came in twos, one with mom, and one with dad. But no matter the financial situation, our parents always did their best to give us whatever we wanted. It may not have been the most glamorous labels or the best stuff but every year we had presents under the tree and something to brag about when school resumed. Not everyone is as fortunate as we were.
This year my wife and I, thanks to our vicarage congregation, had the opportunity to buy presents for a child who otherwise would not have the chance to have them. And as we looked at the list, and our bank account, we thought about prioritizing based on what we could afford. It may not have been the smartest decision, but that priority list went out the window. I know there were years when my mom couldn’t afford what we got, yet somehow we had stuff to unwrap and brighten our day. This year, as I thought about my history and the similarity that must exist between my past and that little girl’s present, I knew we couldn’t stop with what we could or couldn’t afford.
After all, isn’t the Christmas season about giving? Just look at the man who really brings Christmas joy, jolly old St. Nick. He has built a reputation on the giving of gifts to the good little children. Only, the gift I remember him for, and the gift that arguably made him most famous, was the one he gave to Arius. It was during the Council of Nicea in 325 that Arius was attempting to defend his notion of the person of Christ, namely that Jesus was only a man and not God. Upon hearing Arius wax heresy eloquently Nicholas, a bishop in attendance, stood up and slapped Arius in the face. Jolly Old St. Nick, gift giver and heretic hitter.
Apart from being a story that makes me smirk, and one that scares me should I meet St. Nick in the resurrection, it causes me to think about the importance of how we talk about Christ and his incarnation, especially during Advent and Christmas because the way we talk about things influences how we act. It is too easy, and perhaps too dangerous, simply to speak about the coming of Christ in a romantic, lovey dovey, feel-good, sappy family channel, halmark card kind of way. As much as the incarnation is evidence of the love of the father for his creatures, it is also an affront.
Adolf Koeberle, a German theologian from the early half of the twentieth century, speaks of the incarnation in a way that shatters the common story. “The miracle of His presence is the pledge that God has taken pity on the world” (Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness, Wipf and Stock, 53.) Pity? Not love and joy but pity? For whatever else it may be, the incarnation is God’s way of telling humanity that we cannot climb a ladder to heaven. It doesn’t matter what we feel, experience, think, or do, nothing can get us up. He comes down. He comes to us.
In the same way, the cross too is an affront to us. “God has disclosed His judgment on the world in the Cross of Jesus so as to crush us utterly and completely by the judgment it reveals. Here He shows the world what it would never have fully realized by itself, the end of its own wisdom and willfulness and the judgment of God on both” (Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness, Wipf and Stock, 46).
Indeed this time of year is a season for giving, but the reality is there is nothing we can give to God. Nothing we can do to make him happy, or like us better, or get closer to him because he has already done that for us. He came to us. He continues to come to us in Baptism and Holy Communion, in the words of the absolution and in the preaching of and reading of His word. If nothing else this time of year should remind us of this fact. The incarnation, the beautiful baby Jesus and heart warming nativity scene isn’t simply a pledge of love, it is pity enfleshed, pity and judgment that will lead to a cross. Pity and judgment that reminds us of what we cannot do.
But in that moment, when we realize what the incarnation and the cross mean for us as a people we are freed from the falsity of life. Freed from the need to check off boxes on a list of things we have to do to be good Christians. Freed to love people for no other reason than that they are people. Because the other way that God continues to come to us, to care for us, is through us. In the mother that cares for the child, in the son who has to work two jobs to help his family stay afloat, in the random stranger that buys the Christmas presents for those who cannot afford it.
Life under the cross isn’t about making God happy, it is about being his hands and feet to those who need it. What is between me and God has already been decided; 2000 years ago and half a world away. But what is between me and my neighbor, well that changes every day. The situations that arise, ones that remind me of my past, ones that challenge my present, and ones that shape my future are the places in which God has placed me to care for my fellow creatures. In Lutheran terms the third use of the law is less about making me acceptable to God and more about teaching me what it means to care for my neighbor, in that way it guides me. Obedience to it doesn’t effect my place with God, but it does affect my place with my neighbor.
This season is one of giving. One where God gave to us because we cannot give to him. One where God gave to us so we could give to the world.