I can’t imagine church without Christmas. I’ve been in church frequently from the time I was born, and a number of my favorite church memories have to do with Christmas.
One memory that still gets relived each year in my family is of when my oldest brother was home to visit with his new bride. My brother is 6’4”, and his wife is–well, I’m not sure of her exact height. I only know that she’s just the right size for her hair to be at the same level as my brother’s candle during a Christmas Eve service. I’m not sure if she felt something, or if it was the smell of hair burning that caught their attention, but younger brothers thrive on having things like that to tell about our older siblings. He has now successfully gone more than twenty years without lighting her on fire, but the story doesn’t go away. (By the way, I did not ask my brother’s permission to tell this publicly.)
Another memory is from years later when I was on staff at a church, and therefore was sitting on the platform able to see the whole, full sanctuary during our Christmas Eve service. I remember the richness of the entire evening, as a soloist sang “O Holy Night,” and then we all joined in on the hymns. When it was time to listen to the Scripture’s account of Jesus’ birth, I was gripped by the moment as everyone in the place stood in reverence for the words we were about to hear. Then, at the end of the service, to have everyone light their candles against the background of the darkness outside the sanctuary, it created a vivid memory that will remain imprinted on my mind. We were gathered there two millennia later, and on the other side of the world from Bethlehem, but still as people of the Messiah who was born there–just as millions of others of our brothers and sisters around the world were doing that same night.
I also have remarkable memories of Christmases during two years my wife and I spent as missionaries at a children’s home in Guatemala. It was a thrill to be part of the celebration of Christ’s birth with more than forty excited kids. Adding to the excitement for us was that it was a cross-cultural experience, with different traditions than we were used to. The climax of the night wasn’t a quiet singing of “Silent Night” with soft candles, but instead was the noise of children playing and fireworks exploding in every direction at midnight. All of the talk in the Scriptures of the church as a family was never more real to us than during those Christmases with those children. We were privileged to play a family role for kids who didn’t have their own homes to be in, plus we got to see how the wider church was involved in helping them celebrate. Local Guatemalan churches pitched in, as well as churches from the States (such as one church that worked through much of the year to provide gifts for each child) in order to allow those children to experience the reality of the church as a family.
I really can’t imagine what the church would be like without Christmas, and as I reflect on that, perhaps there’s more depth to the centrality of Christmas in the church than I first realized. On one level, the explanation is rather obvious: the Christian Church would never have had any reason to exist if Christ hadn’t been born. That’s about as uncomplicated as saying that the life of baseball players would be very different if baseball had never been invented. But as we explored yesterday, incarnation means more than we realize–and I think that’s every bit as true for the church overall as it is for you and me as individuals within it.
The metaphor of a family isn’t the only image that the New Testament gives us to help us understand the nature of Christ’s church. Perhaps the most common picture in Paul’s writings is of the church as a body–and, of course, not just anyone’s body: “Now you are the body of Christ.” (It’s important to note that the “you” in that sentence is collective, so a Texas translation of the Bible would accurately read, “Now y’all are the body of Christ.”)
That sentence was written (in Greek, not in Texan) by St. Paul, who also wrote the words we considered yesterday, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and “I pray that...you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” So, perhaps we could state Paul’s threefold message of the mystery of incarnation like this:
- Jesus Christ is God enfleshed;
- Christ now indwells you;
- the church is indwelt by Christ to the point that we are his body.
Can you see that–in the person down the pew from you at church? That they aren’t just a fellow worshipper–who may or may not just happen to be lighting their spouse’s hair on fire–but that they are one in whom Christ dwells? And that together we are Christ’s body?
How differently might we treat one another in the church if we believed this about each other–that every time I see someone in church, I am laying my eyes both on an individual in whom Christ dwells and someone who makes up an indispensable part of the body of Jesus Christ?
How could it grow your capacity to love–not just the friends or family members you usually sit with, but the people you don’t know? The people in the church down the street? Christians on the other side of the world? Others whose practice or theology is very different from yours but who nonetheless claim the same Messiah as you–recognizing that they are part of his body just as you are?
Knowing that Christ now indwells you, can you see, know, love, serve, and adore Christ in the other parts of his body?
Maybe we can’t imagine the church without Christmas, but we also wouldn’t have any experience of incarnation without the church.
Robert Mulholland states this well and points us in our final direction: “There can be no wholeness in the image of Christ which is not incarnate in our relationships with others, both in the body of Christ and in the world.” So, tomorrow, we turn one final page in these twelve days of Christmas. Knowing that we, who are indwelt by Christ and are also Christ’s body, what does Christmas mean for the world?
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
“Now you are the body of Christ…” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Invitation to a Journey, Kindle Locations 82-83