A New Sort of Birth

Lo! In the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ‘ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright

It may surprise you to learn that the Church has seasons. There is a rhythm to worship and spiritual growth in the Old Testament; certain days of the year were marked by feasting and others by times of repentance. These often correspond- rather poetically- to the actual seasons of nature- i.e. the changing of the leaves in Autumn, the slumber of trees in Winter, the explosive growth and new birth of Spring, and the joy of harvest in Summer were connected to the feasts of Tabernacles, day of Atonement, Passover, and Pentecost etc. The juxtaposition between the original sense of the season and the current manifestation in Western culture has gotten me thinking.
To say “the nature of the Christmas Season is different than its roots” would be an incredible understatement. To put it bluntly, there is no meaningful day of religious observance that advocates mass acquisition and consumerism. The marks of the season have become simply holiday drinks at Starbucks and a deluge of marketing. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not expounding on the old evangelical adage “we need to put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others have taken up that cause and I have little to add to the matter. I have nothing against the giving of gifts to family and friends and businesses indeed need to make a living but I think it is interesting to consider the beginning of the season.
Historically speaking the phrase “Christmas Season” refers to “Advent,” something of which many have only vague knowledge, if any at all. The word Advent literally means “arriving” and the arrival in question is that of Jesus at Christmas. It began with the Gauls in Spain in the 5th century or so as a way of helping new converts to Christianity prepare for baptism on the day of Epiphany. The season lasted about 40 days and was marked not by acquisition but by fasting, spiritual growth and a deep seeking after repentance.
Advent then is individual and corporate preparation of Christians for the coming of Christ. This of course refers to the symbolic coming of Jesus at Christmas so long ago; but also the very real belief in a return of Christ at some point in the future. Since this return could happen at any moment, Advent becomes a reminder for us that we need to become a people *prepared* for the coming of The Lord.
To paraphrase Meister Eckhart (13 century) “what good is the Advent of Christ at Christmas if He doesn’t Advent in me?” That is what the season of Christmas is for, to prepare our hearts for a new birth. Jesus was born into miserable surroundings so long ago, something that seems appropriate when I consider that I need him to be born in me. The first Advent was such a momentous, remarkable world changing event that we would miss its significance without a season of preparation before hand. It also reminds us that the next advent will be even more so and thus we must call out to one another “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
None of this is to say that we should be somber during the Christmas time, just aware. Christmas should indeed be marked by great Joy and the giving of gifts, since Joy himself has come as a great Gift to the world. It often intrigues me that some of my neighbors, who would disdain much of the content of scripture, would celebrate such an overtly Christian holiday. Perhaps there is some subtle trick in reality that causes even those who don’t particularly care for Jesus to enjoy celebrating his arrival on the scene of human history. May the community of people who celebrates the coming of Christ continue to grow! May we see the birth of something new this Christmas!

Knocking at the Door of Meaning

When Gary told me he had found Jesus, I thought, Yahoo! We’re rich! Then I found out it was something different- Jack Handy

Lately, I have been reflecting on the nature of grammar as it applies to our lives.  When it comes to sentences, I used to just go with my instincts and the complex nature of our compound constructions was often lost on me.  Yet, in my master’s work, I was forced into learning about subjects and objects and prepositions in sentences – things I had previously thought useless.  I have discovered the pleasure of good rhetoric.  Further, I learned the value of syntax in day to day existence.  You see, without syntax, there can be no sentence because the technical definition of a sentence demands that meaning be present within.
It may seem self-evident that meaning is important.  As with sentences, the search for meaning defines humanity.  Human beings are like a sailor in the crow’s nest – we stare unblinkingly into the abyss in search of meaning.  In particular, the generation I work with, those in their twenties, are trying to figure out who they are and what their purpose is.  They are Post-Moderns, the category of persons that has of late been accused of destroying truth along with other absolutes.  Yet the paradox is that this destruction lies in the wake of their ravenous search for meaning.  The previous generation was used to accepting such foundations and find their erosion disconcerting at the least.  The current generation is overly concerned with discovering things for themselves and discussing the relative value, and ambiguous nature of truth.

Yet ambiguity, which is often the substance of a good joke, is frequently used in good writing.  The Bible is a well-written book, whatever your opinion of its content.  Take for example 2 Corinthians 5:14a”The love of Christ urges us on because we are convinced that one has died for all…” The passage goes on to make a convincing case: that if a person believes Christ died for all then we wouldn’t be able to look at the people around us in the same way.  We would see them as people who Christ found worthwhile enough to die for. This change in perspective then, would, if we experienced it, change our behavior, the treatment we offer to the people around us.  The question, which leads us back to the subject of ambiguity, is a classic “what’s my motivation?!”

     The above chart outlines two ways to take the motivating phrase  “love of Christ.” If we take this as a subjective genitive, then, “Christ’s love for” us would be something that propels us forward.  Christ’s love for me is so great that I feel a need to respond appropriately, out of gratitude, to be less self-absorbed. However if we take “love of Christ” as an objective genitive then our “love of Christ” is something that impels us to love others, because we love him.  This works much in the same way I might voluntarily do the dishes- not because I find the experience enjoyable, but because I love my wife and realize that this is a way to express that love.  There is a Greek scholar named Wallace who would say that in this case we don’t have to choose.  While some disagree, he would call this a “plenary genitive,” it does “double duty,” if you will (Biblical Greek Beyond the Basics 118).  The phrase’s ambiguous use in this case implies a mutual relationship.  I might add that this could be called an adjectival use of the genitive, one which describes the type of love, i.e. Christ-like or Christ-ly love, which motivates us.
This is one of many examples where the Bible uses rhetorical ambiguity to allow for greater meaning.  Obviously, an excess of this could eventually obscure any and all meaning, and make communication impossible.  One can not move like a hummingbird from truth to truth without needing a place to call home.  A balance is required between the enjoyment of searching for answers and a willingness to accept that eventually one must make choices or all the possibilities you have collected become meaningless.  Yet, I am grateful for the gift of Post-Moderns, grateful for flexibility and a desire to seek out answers for ourselves, grateful for the search for meaning.  I believe that if we keep knocking, we may indeed get an answer.