Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hidden Power of God at Christmas

Christmas is about the humility of God coming into human flesh, entering the world born in a stable. This is lowly and rustic and familiar, but lest we think God reducing Himself to our span is a lowering of standards, a making of Himself comfortable with the way things simply are with us and our world, we need to be reminded that this is a paradox, a mystery of mysteries. The Incarnation is humility, but it is a great and glorious humility because here is also the presence full-strength of the Power and Majesty and Holiness who framed the worlds in glory and perfection, who rules on high and commands the innumerable angelic host, who demands justice and righteousness from His creatures and will judge them accordingly, who is infinite and incomparable in every way. Indeed, the Incarnation does not gainsay God's almighty power but rather underscores it and shows that it is of one substance with His love and compassion, which He extends even and especially to this race that has fallen from Him and brought the whole Creation into ruin. This is a God beyond all limits. This is a God who is big enough to become small for the sake of love.

The fullness of this Deity came to dwell bodily in the Child Jesus. This means that though this Child was small, though He was born in the meanest of circumstances, poor, of a people oppressed, He was able to faithfully carry out the plan for which His Father had placed His hand to the plow, and He did it not in spite of this smallness but precisely through it. Of Him, St. Paul hymns:

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

And, of course, Jesus through His death and resurrection has raised fallen humanity so that those who believe in Him may sit with Him in the glory mentioned above both now in the Church and forever in the New Jerusalem. Great is the promise of Christmas. Christ and we His brothers and sisters are the firstfruits of the New Creation, with which all of heaven and nature are destined to be crowned.

The Office of Readings on Christmas Day bears beautiful witness to the glory the Kingdom that has arrived in the humble birth of Christ will bring to the whole Creation. But while I was feasting on these wonderful readings this Christmas, I was also mourning the deaths of the worshipers in Nigeria who had been killed earlier that morning in church bombings as they were glorying in the same Christmas mystery. It is confusing, senseless, and tragic that on the morning when they were celebrating peace on earth that at least two dozen of Christ's redeemed should die in such wanton acts of hatred and violence. The promise of Christmas is not yet fully realized. It is perhaps in recognition of such realities that many parts of the Church commemorate the Feast of St. Stephen the Martyr the day after Christmas and the Feast of the Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem on December 28. It is one thing that during the Christmas season violence should come upon the Church unexpectedly, but in light of all that the Incarnation means for humanity and the world, why do we intentionally turn our gaze back to the predations the enemy has made against God, His Christ, and His redeemed children as we do in these commemorations?

Well, until God's Kingdom arrives in all its fullness at Christ's Second Coming, His reign will often be manifested among us in a hidden manner, as it was in the First Coming. God came to us in the fullness of His glory, hidden in the weakness of the Child born in Bethlehem. We remember the martyrs in the midst of the Christmas celebration because in their deaths they bear witness to this Child, who grew up to become the servant of all, pouring out His blood and giving His life for a world determined to reject Him. Resurrection, glory, and the New Creation came through the cross. He descended into the earth that he might rise to the heights of heaven and fill the whole universe, and He made himself the bondsman of His enemies, receiving death at their hands, that he might be the captain of their salvation. This is how Christ has triumphed, won brothers and sisters for himself from among His enemies, and how He is transforming the world that yet lies in wickedness.

In like manner, as the martyrs echo the sufferings of the Lord who bought them, laying hold of Him who unto the death laid hold of them, they plant their blood as the seed of the Church. People see the power that is in their testimony to the Lord Jesus and come to recognize something they cannot account for in the unbreakable hope these have in Him. This is Christ at work, hiding His glory in the suffering of the saints, overcoming His enemies and theirs, converting foes of the Gospel to children of God, and all of it through the death He shares with His martyrs.

In a less dramatic though still paradoxical manner, this is also the way it is with all Christians in the lesser martyrdoms we experience in our lives. Life in a fallen world is filled with small vexations that build up and gradually steal away our strength. Life doesn't quite go the way we plan, and we don't seem as victorious as we think we ought to be. Our jobs are unsatisfying, or we fail in our relationships. We spin our wheels. We seem to accomplish little of lasting worth. Whether they be these kinds of trials or the catastrophies that leave our lives in utter ruin, Jesus Christ is with us, hidden in our hearts with power and grace for us and for our world. What we shall be in Him we do not yet see, but the fullness of God hidden in the helpless Child and the unveiling of the glory residing there that came through His humble obedience to the Father bear the ultimate witness to what is ours even now and what shall be fully realized in us and in our world from our communion with Him. Keep the faith, humble Christian; Christ hidden in us is the power that overcomes the world.

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