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Our Birth at Bethlehem

… to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.
—Psalm 27:6

I am deeply moved each Christmas Eve when the Christ Child figure is gently placed in the crèche. I am inspired by the Scriptures and the theology of the feast, but the simple beauty of the scene affects me powerfully. Tears well up. I usually cannot sing the rest of the hymn as we proceed from crèche to altar. I thank not only my Heavenly Father for this annual gift of sentiment and emotion; I thank my mother. Mother loved Christmas! She loved Easter too, but her enthusiasm for the December festival drove her lively imagination and gave scope for her creativity. She possessed uncommon aesthetic gifts. These were especially manifest as the family prepared for Christmas.

She would open the box containing the crèche with great solemnity. While unwrapping each piece with tender loving care, she would explain its part in the unfolding drama of the Christmas story. She was a great storyteller. With the greatest enthusiasm showing in her face and eyes, and using her hands, she told the Christmas story based on the Holy Scriptures. She loved the Bible. She knew it by heart. This commitment to the authority of Scripture does not mean she did not give it flesh and blood embellishments.

“Children! It was not just one angel but the entire Heavenly Host was there that cold night in Bethlehem,” she would say. “So great was the radiance in the night that people far and near saw a great star shining upon high.” Then she tried to explain to young children what it meant that the Heavenly Host was present at the birth of this particular child.

It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
from Heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

By Christmas Eve our crèche was fulsome in its appointments. We had quite a few shepherds and a number of gypsy-looking figures. There was a figure with a piglet under one arm, a violation of Torah. Half a dozen sheep, goats, camels, dogs, cats, horses, cows, calves, donkeys, mules, and a peacock were all present and accounted for. Barbie showed up one year. She was quickly forbidden, not because of her attire, but because she was out of scale.

I was perennially anxious to place the animals in just the right way around the manger. Mother would say, “The shepherds worshiped the Christ child long before the wise men came to Bethlehem. God sent the angel Gabriel to them. That’s the same angel who told Mary she was pregnant by the Holy Ghost. If Gabriel ever visits you, get ready — something big is about to happen.”

After sundown on Christmas Eve, the Christ Child was placed in the crèche that sat on its own little table near the fireplace and meticulously decorated evergreen tree. Mary and Joseph looked down adoringly on the Newborn. Above them all was the bright Star of Bethlehem, which it was Dad’s job to firmly attach to the peak of the pitched stable roof, which featured tiny shingles. Is there anything more beautiful than this colorful, dramatic scene at Bethlehem?

This splendid icon was made again a few days ago in the little church I serve in West Texas. Per custom, I asked a small girl to carry the bambino in the procession. She placed him in the manger. The collect was offered. We adored the newborn king and moved singing toward the altar. As we celebrated the Christ Mass, we sang the Sanctus in its place.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord!
God of power and might!
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!

Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. Since glory belongs properly to God, it was proper that we sang that marvelous French carol named “Gloria.”

Angels we have heard on high,
singing sweetly through the night,
and the mountains in reply
echoing their brave delight:
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!

What is glory? What if we set aside for the moment the frequent mentions of God’s great “brightness” that angels saw in Jean Mauburn’s and many others’ carols? Is there another way we can understand God’s glory? I can see that there is a link between God’s glory and beauty, and other attributes such as truth, goodness, and unity. Some philosophers, perhaps of a Kantian bent, do not welcome an inextricable union of the four transcendentals and the Deity, if they believe in God at all. But in Christian thought the Incarnate Lord cannot be conceived without the irreducible eternal values.

I spent years trying to comprehend what is denoted by the Hebrew word kabod and the Greek word doxa. Surely the words mean more than a “shining.” The Bible dictionaries are of great service in this regard, but at a certain point I came to rely less on the denotation of the two biblical words than on their connotation. I began to make progress. We must look at the question through the lens of that great doctrine we contemplate especially this time of year: the incarnation. If God’s taking up our human nature in the incarnation is a permanent reality, then our life is already “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Of course this definite but discreet mixture of the human and the divine is, as St. Paul wrote, “a profound mystery” (Eph. 5:32). But I submit that glory describes the way God “finishes off” humankind, fulfills the personal destiny of each human being who accepts the gift, and veritably completes the human nature given us at conception. Christian thinkers have held various views of which particular event in the life of Jesus was the most paradigmatically glorious. Was it the resurrection or the passion? Was it when Jesus joined his disciples by walking on the sea? When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, many witnessed that unmistakable manifestation of God’s glory. And of course the transfiguration on the mount had all the elements of glory in it: the radiant presence of the Lord, Jesus’ human flesh looking altered and yet the same, and the Almighty speaking important words the disciples were able to hear.

If we take the Scriptures as a whole; if we look for the idea in the fathers; if we look into the lives of the undisputed saints of the historic Church, then we must allow that God’s “glory” has a great deal to do with us. “Glory” is very often a way to describe the phenomenon of God in us and the proper end of human life. This is the burden of many of the greatest works of Anglican divinity, including Book V of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1600), which associates “participation in God” with grace and the sacraments. Many of our Anglo-Catholic titans offered important books on this topic. I think immediately of one of the greatest books ever written, Robert Wilberforce’s The Doctrine of the Incarnation in Relation to Mankind and the Church (1848). Two books by Eric Mascall are wise and indispensable: Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation (1946), and Grace and Glory (1961). Glory as human completion effected by Grace is likewise the pastoral and moral thrust of Michael Ramsey’s Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (1948).

Mascall’s emphasis in Grace and Glory is given in a quotation he liked from Bernard of Morlaix, a 12th-century monk of Cluny: “Grace is nothing else than a kind of beginning of glory in us.” Ramsey’s mature thinking on the question is indicated in the quotation from St. Irenaeus of Lyons inscribed on his gravestone at Canterbury:

The glory of God is the living man,
and the life of man is the vision of God.

Ramsey believed that transfiguration — change — in Christ is a powerful theme of both the New Testament and the fathers. The Bible should be taken at face value in this regard, and we see that the fathers wrestled with the meaning of the Bible. St. Paul believed that some people will be “transformed” into Christ’s image (2 Cor. 3:18), and St. John assumed that “we will be like him” (1 John 3:2). An avid student of the fathers by way of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Ramsey took the doctrine of theosis for granted. The resurrection life is already happening in us. Ramsey liked the following quotation from St. Leo the Great:

The foundation was laid of the life of the Church, that the whole body of Christ might realize the character of the change which it would receive, and that the members might promise themselves a share in that honor which had already shone forth in the Head. (Sermon 60. Emphasis added)

Ramsey loved the New Testament scholarship of B.F. Westcott, who wrote in The Historic Faith (1885): “The Resurrection shows us our end. The Lord, as Son of Man, gives the measure of the capacity of humanity and shews that to which He leads those who are united with Him.”

Ramsey favored Mascall’s thinking on the question:

Christ’s humanity develops into the perfect organ of His divine self-expression to the universe. … In the transfigured Christ, the system of relations which forms His humanity no longer manifests it as subject to the normal laws of science but shews it to be governed by new laws into which the old have been absorbed by a process of continuous modification. (Mascall, quoted in Ramsey, Glory, 143).

That the word glory may be used to describe the completion or fulfillment of our human nature is a major emphasis of a sermon C.S. Lewis preached in the University Church at Oxford on June 8, 1941. The famous “Weight of Glory” sermon is about God’s desire to glorify his faithful. It goes without saying that God creates us with the desire for glory in some manner or other. The mature person has moved from the desire for worldly glory to a desire for the glory that God wishes to bestow on us by grace. We are born caring what others and God think of us. When we are mature, we care how God truly sees us. God wants nothing more than to see us and to approve of us as members of his Son, Christ Jesus, and this approbation by God would indeed be our glory.

Lewis makes the interesting observation that we may desire the beautiful, the true, the good, and the one, but they are always out of our reach. We gain intimations of what we want deep down — we want to possess these eternal values and to be possessed by them! — but we overlook that which we can have and which God tells us we can have: God’s glory. The most meaningful possession we can have is God’s approval, and that is our glory. We are born wanting God’s approbation or glory. The “weight” or burden of glory is that I do secretly believe that this can happen, that God is pleased with me like a father for a son. The “weight” of glory is also my knowledge that the persons I encounter every day have the exact same destiny as me: glory. I should care more — much more — about these people. It is in this context that Lewis famously said that the person sitting next to me is the most sacred thing in the world, excepting the Blessed Sacrament.

But in truth it is also possible that I could miss out. Lewis said that we walk along “a razor’s edge” of one possibility or the other. Will we gain God’s approval or not? Jesus spoke hauntingly of the possibility that God will say to us when we meet him face to face, “I know you not.” Lewis writes that “the truest index of our real situation in this world is that our being outside of what we desire most — which is to be inside where God dwells eternally — can end up a permanent state and God says in the end, ‘I know you not.’”

The most important thing is to follow the Lord. We must have faith that the promises of Christ are true. We shall wait faithfully. We are presently outside of the “splendid, luminous reality” beckoning us Christians to be faithful, but Lewis reminds us that “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor” that we will not be outside always.

When I was 23 years old, I had an unexpected, life-changing experience. It was a two-part phenomenon. One early afternoon, I was sitting in the lunchroom of the United Methodist Publishing House in Dallas. I was a floor clerk at what was once the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi. It was a balmy September day. The windows were open. I could hear the traffic on Main Street five stories below.

I was finished eating, cleaning up my lunch effects, and I intended to go back downstairs to Cokesbury bookstore. As I was eating my lunch, I noticed a blue iris someone had placed in a bottle on another table. I stopped to look at it more closely. It was a large blossom in a pale green Dr. Pepper bottle filled with water. The flower was so remarkably beautiful that I sat down to take a closer look. The color was neither violet nor purple nor any shade of lavender but was a deep sky blue, the rich, marvelous color of the eastern sky just before twilight.

The sheer beauty of the flower drew me to it. I sat and contemplated it. The early afternoon daylight gave it a rare radiance. I spoke no words but quietly praised God for making such a perfectly beautiful creature. Very briefly, for a second only, I felt the presence of God “behind” the flower. It lasted but a second, yet I felt strangely lighthearted and filled with Grace for the rest of the day. It was an extraordinary experience, like none I had ever had. Yet I also reflected afterward that creatures must, of course, reflect or reveal the glory of the one who created them. As the great Étienne Gilson wrote in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (1936), if even the fragments of the shattered world yet declare the glory of the Lord, surely a creature as beautifully made as that blue iris can be a medium of revelation.

This mystical apprehension of God was followed a few days later by a second extraordinary experience. I was in the same place. As if to get my attention, or more likely to open my mind, I felt the sudden, momentary presence of God and the Lord “told” me without words or anything the ear can hear that the resurrection of Jesus really happened.

The momentary presence of the Lord made me shiver from head to toe. I did not see a bright light. I did not see anything. In fact, some part of me I did not know was freshly activated. Was it something I was made with and now it was “turned on”? In any case, my mind was opened to understand something. I did not know that I needed to know what the Lord “said” to me. I was a Christian. I offered the creed on Sundays. I assumed that I believed the dogmas of the creed. But there was evidently a part of me that doubted the resurrection as it was reported in the New Testament. I suppose that a part of me tacitly accepted the falsely “spiritual” or “demythologized” view and theory of Jesus’ resurrection; after all, my education had been thoroughly modern to date. What the Lord “said” to me in that powerful moment in the lunchroom was that the four Evangelists got it right. Their testimony is true. Jesus was raised from the dead and the Evangelists were only being faithful to what they themselves experienced in the flesh or were told by those who had witnessed “these things” in person. If I sensed the glory of God “behind” the blue iris, I saw it again in the Risen Lord.

These two experiences of God — utterly related to each other — changed my life. I found places to worship often. For the next several months, my only prayer was very brief and simple: “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Lord!” Except for liturgical prayer in church, this was all I felt moved to say when I prayed. I would kneel beside my bed and could only say, “Thank you, Lord!” This is all I prayed when I was driving down the road.

I soon found myself in the hands of wise persons of mature faith. I was discovering the church too. I was daily gaining an understanding of what is meant by the body of Christ. My heart was touched and my mind opened. I knew I was now on an adventure.

Such experiences do not and cannot replace the saving faith enabled by grace. These experiences do not happen to everyone. When they do happen to someone, they happen for God’s own purpose. In my case, I knew it was my duty to assure others that the resurrection happened. I had no further duty than to give others confidence to believe that the gospel is true.

If the resurrection really happened, so did the incarnation. Both the resurrection and the incarnation make a “new category” for human reckoning, and glory — God’s glory and our glory by grace — are at the center of it all. These events change everything, not only philosophy and metaphysics, but religion too. Grace makes Christ’s glory our glory. Something in each of us was born at Bethlehem. You and I were made to participate in God’s glory. If grace completes nature, grace also purifies our desire, so that all we desire is God’s approbation. “Glory” denotes our completion and fulfilment in God. W.W. How (1823-97) evokes the idea in the penultimate verse of his great hymn put to glorious music by Ralph Vaughan Williams:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way,
Alleluia, alleluia!

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