By Mac Stewart
Christmas is a time when Christians are particularly susceptible to one of the perennial temptations of religion: domesticating the gospel. In a certain sense, of course, the gospel is inherently domestic. Christians, at Christmas in particular, worship a God who made his home with us, pitched a tent in our camp, spread a tabernacle in our neighborhood. He made a domus among us, and himself became our domus, the home in which we live and move and have our being. Those who are blessed with a reasonably healthy domestic life – in whatever form – are not wrong to give thanks for the gifts of family and home and hearth as they sip eggnog and roast chestnuts and distribute presents in these days of the Lord’s nativity, even if they do it as those, like many in our age, to whom Christian language has become foreign.
None of this domestic cheer is intrinsically inimical to the Christian gospel. These things are not only signs pointing to the God who opens wide his hand and fills all things living with plenteousness; they can also serve to reinforce that the salvation that has come down to the world in Christ is in the end to lead us to the immeasurable joy and peace and comfort of the true home whose loss the human race daily grieves, and whose recovery will yield pleasures forevermore. And, indeed, I might actually prefer this kind of domestication of the gospel at Christmas – a domestication where familial or communal joy takes a dominant key – to its reactionary obverse: bumper stickers about “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” or the words “Every family needs a stable foundation” wrapped around a picture of the stable of the nativity.
In the end, though, there is a danger that any kind of domestication of the good news that comes to us at Christmas will prevent us from recognizing who it is whose coming Christians actually celebrate. The Lord whose stable ostensibly provides a firm foundation for the family is the same one who said that those who follow him must hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even their own life (Luke 14:26), and the Savior whose birth the angels joyfully herald is also the one who pronounced woe on the self-righteous serpents and vipers of established religion, asking them how they would escape being sentenced to hell (Matthew 23:33).
Jesus is not Santa Claus, but neither is he an anxious culture warrior who condescendingly sighs and shakes his head at people who don’t have enough Christmas kitsch around their tree. This is not, I hasten to add, to make some careless swipe at “the family” and its essential place as a nurturing habitat for Christian and human life, or against “religion” as some big, bad menace that stifles real relationship with Jesus. It is just to say that the child in the manger is every bit as threatening to all our attempts to control him, or to affix his name to the banner of our own well-constructed plans (familial, religious, or otherwise), as those who sought to kill him feared.
This is why it is a salutary thing for the church that many of its historic lectionaries prescribe substantial chunks of the book of Isaiah during this season. The original daily office lectionary of the Episcopal Church has the faithful read through almost the whole book during the month of December. Isaiah never lets us rest for very long on any kind of complacent self-satisfaction with our own religiosity, with the sense that God is an indulgent, accommodating grandfather on the one hand, or, on the other, one who is especially pleased by whatever reassuring pious platitudes we use to congratulate ourselves on how Christian we are.
The verse before Isaiah announces the glad tidings that “to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” he proclaims that “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5-6). And after he tells us of the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” whose government and throne will have no end, he laments that “the people did not turn to him who smote them, nor seek the LORD of hosts. So the LORD cut off from Israel head and tail, palm branch and reed in one day” (Isaiah 9:6, 13-14). The God that Isaiah proclaims is “not a tame lion,” and the justice and righteousness that his coming guarantees is effected only by the “zeal of the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 9:7).
Zeal is a tricky thing. St. Paul tells the Romans never to flag in it (Rom. 12:11), but he also admits that it was zeal for the traditions of his fathers that led him initially to persecute the church of God (Galatians 1:13-14). We might think that being more zealous would be the obvious remedy for any kind of domestication of the gospel. The problem, though, is that our ostensible zeal for the Lord can easily become just another covert way of talking about ourselves.
The trouble with zeal is not the fact that it entails an intensity of devotion (if we’re dealing with God, then how could anything less than our whole heart and soul be demanded of us?). The trouble with it is rather that we are so good at deceiving ourselves about what we’re actually being zealous for. Paul was certain that his Pharisaical zeal against the Way was pleasing to the God of his fathers, but the blinding light of the Lord’s own zeal promptly seized and redirected it for his purposes among the Gentiles. God’s zeal must always qualify and condition our own, and God’s zeal is never something that we can bring neatly in line with our own plans and proposals. The baby in the Christmas creche scalds our hands even as we place him there, the white heat of his love melting through the ornaments we’ve hung around our necks to prevent ourselves having actually to look into his face.
Perhaps one way to distinguish the domesticated, platitudinous sort of religious zeal from one that is genuinely gripped by the zeal of the Lord of hosts is to notice that the former often shows signs of not very well-hidden insecurity and anxiety, while the latter is more likely to be marked by the real “fear of the Lord,” delight in which is an identifying characteristic of the shoot from Jesse’s stump (Isaiah 11:3). Anxiety treats God as very small and yourself as very big; fear treats God as very big and yourself as very small. Anxiety worries – about the future, about your resume (either your professional resume or your metaphorical moral or spiritual “resume”), about people you may have offended, about whether you’re getting things right, about whether you’re pleasing “God” (which often means, your own illusions about what “godliness” looks like).
Fear wonders – about the birds in the sky, about the mysteries of being alive, about the incomprehensible fullness of existence, about the strangeness of other people, and above all about the utterly disorienting truth that you have absolutely nothing that you have not received: no bread, no ability, no skill, no knowledge, no charm, no goodness, no virtue. The zeal that Paul commends, the one that delights in the fear of the Lord, is sometimes not even, at the superficial level, particularly pious, but is manifest rather in the white hot embers burning at the bottom of the soul – nearly impossible to put out, and capable of throwing forth at a moment’s notice a singeing spark or smoldering coal, but most of the time not visible to the naked eye, except for a faint glow emanating from underneath the wood that is evident to those who stop and look carefully.
One of the holiest people I know is about as far as anyone could imagine from a quaint purveyor of bumper sticker religion. The fact that he has spent large stretches of his life on the streets means that a rough and sometimes even slightly frightening persona is the misleading exterior that makes his golden-hearted generosity to friend and foe alike all the more disarming. His aphorisms are hardly material for bumper stickers (“the homeless shelter’s where they teach people to fight each other”; “world police got a billion dollars and we gotta go panhandle people for change”), but seem to approach the prophetic when you get to know what he means. He doesn’t talk too often very explicitly of religion. But once when we sat in a room together, he pointed suddenly to the Bible lying on the desk in front of me, and said, “that whole book can be summed up in two words, ‘fear God.’”
God has come to us in a helpless baby. But this baby is already the same Living One whose eyes are like a flame of fire, whose voice is like the sound of many waters, and whose face is like the sun shining in full strength, before whom the apostle falls down as though dead (Rev. 1:14-17). At a glance from this infant we ourselves are left speechless, stripped of our attempts to domesticate God, taught what the true fear of the Lord means, taught how genuinely to burn with zeal: by seeing that in this humble child the Lord’s zeal already burns for us.
Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.