Christmas Eve: Joy Amongst the Ruins

BonhoefferLast Sunday night I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the opening of the service. A couple of weeks before we’d been thinking about what it means for us, as Christians, to be Living Between Two Worlds. We have begun to enjoy our inheritance through Jesus Christ, but we still live in this fallen world, confronted by and embroiled in all of its sin, pain, injustice and suffering.

We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival. One comes with joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love. Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work. Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime.

Despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1930), From God Is In the Manger (pp. 54-55)

These words were cast into stark relief by what happened in George Square on Monday. There are so many people who have received bad news in the last few days, for whom Christmas will be no festival of joy. It is important for us as Christians that we don’t bury our heads in the sand, even at times like Christmas. We worship amongst the ruins of this fading world, awaiting its renewal, rejoicing in God, giving thanks for Jesus, yet all the time opening ourselves as Jesus did to its need. Despite it all, Christmas comes. Despite it all, Jesus Christ has come. And so we rejoice, we await the coming new creation, and we enjoy the gifts of God. We embrace the tension of Living Between Two Worlds.

In The Crucible

salemLast night I saw an excellent performance of Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, by pupils at Lochaber High School. Miller wrote The Crucible as a satire on post-war McCarthyism, but its setting is the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th Century, and the infamous witch trials there. Miller’s portrayal of the events at Salem is largely historical, and through the play he draws powerful parallels between the hysteria, authoritarianism and persecution of the Puritan communities of New England and of the McCarthy era.

What particularly struck me last night was the The Crucible’s portrayal of Pietism. Pietism is that version of Christian faith which, like Gnosticism, denigrates the physical world. Pietism proposes a radical separation of God’s work of creation and God’s work of salvation. The created world is perceived as a ‘grim vale of soul-making’ (George Caird’s characterisation), a temporary theatre constructed so that the play of human salvation can run its course. Human culture and the enjoyment of life are denigrated by Pietism, and are ultimately meaningless. Death is to be embraced, life endured.

Whatever benefits came from Puritan theology, Puritanism had Pietism at its heart. Miller portrays a Puritan community consumed by superstition, and a clergy consumed with material gain and pride. In Salem, the arts, literature, and human enjoyment in general are frowned upon. Giles Corey suspects his wife of witchery because she is reading books. That children should be dancing is a cause for dismay. Goody Proctor confesses her coldness to her husband, a coldness emblematic of the denigration of human love within Pietism. A Christianity which finds no place for the positive theology of creation found in the scriptures of the Bible lays itself open to the superstition and hysteria which erupted in Salem and elsewhere. When Christianity has little connection to God’s work in nature, Christians begin to live in an enchanted world, where everyday illnesses and misfortunes are attributed to evil spirits, and where the devil, rather than human sin, is behind every injustice. This is a Christianity where an extreme dualism values the spiritual world as the ‘real’ world, and the physical world as inconsequential. Where such views prevail, Christians find it easier to live dualistic lives. Their ‘godly’ spiritual exercises sit alongside actions which are compromised by greed, jealousy or hatred. A theological disconnect between the spiritual and the physical leads to lives which are dualistic and untransformed. In Miller’s Salem, ‘covenanted, Gospel Christians’ talk in pious terms, yet angle to acquire others’ land. Rev Parris most clearly exhibits this hypocrisy, using threats of hell-fire to cow-tow his parishioners whilst seeking more pay, and golden candlesticks at his elbows.

The Crucible can make for uncomfortable viewing for some Christians, portraying as it does the hypocrisy and superstition that can flourish within Christianity. But I enjoy The Crucible as a Christian, not only because it’s a great play, but because the kind of Christianity encountered in The Crucible deserves critique. Its portrayal of Pietism (although focussing on its extreme consequences) is not just of historical interest, since Pietism is alive and well within evangelical Christianity. Within the Church we continue to be burdened by its presence, because Pietism is incapable of carrying God’s truth effectively into God’s world. It holds Christians back in terms of their growth and discipleship, stretching them in an unbiblical tension of guilt and superstition, suspended between heaven and earth.

In The Crucible, Rev Hale speaks to Goody Proctor in the face of the latest hangings, ‘Life is God’s most precious gift’. True Christianity understands God as the God of life, and understands that human life is to be lived and to be valued, along with the beauty and meaning of human art and literature. True Christianity banishes asceticism, and understands that God intends to redeem this creation, and that through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s people are destined for resurrection. We are called to witness to the goodness of God in creation, and to proclaim that Jesus Christ came into the world to bring ‘life in all its fullness’.

Meditations on Creation

Early last month, I spoke at the Scottish Christian Outdoor Centres’ All-Team Gathering down at the wonderful Glencoe Outdoor Centre. Over three days we thought about creation in God’s purposes, creation and Jesus Christ, and our place in creation. Here are some brief meditations based on those talks.

forestLiving Between Two Trees. Sitting in a forest, listening to its life, we gain a sense of place. The trees themselves speak of longevity, of permanence. Many generations of animals have come and gone. Yet, these trees have remained, their trunks and branches weathering storms, connecting the life-giving leaves to the life-giving earth year after year. To sit amongst the trees in a forest is to breathe in a sense of time as well as place. As Christians, we are living between two trees. The tree of life appears in Genesis 2, reminding us of God’s intention for a world without death. To us, it is a lost world. But, the tree of life appears again in Revelation 22. It reminds us of God’s purpose to redeem, to bring back the world of God’s intention, a world without sin, without death. Trees stand at the beginning and at the end of our Holy Scriptures. Trees, speaking of the permanence of God’s intention for life. And speaking of the permanence of this creation. We will walk and sit in these forests again after Christ’s return, and remember that the trees pointed us to this.

gannetOur Place in God’s World. We startle the deer in the woods. They pause, their eyes meeting ours briefly. They run, leaping, to find solitude again. Our hearts leap with them. We feel joy… We watch gannets hunting, their keen eyes spying their prey from high up. Then diving below. Graceful, efficient, beautiful. Our hearts swell – these birds are amazing… God’s creatures bring such meaning into our lives. A sense of well-being. All is well… We belong in this world, here with these creatures. God made us from the same earth, on the same day. As the image of God, we humans are not only related to our Creator, but to the rest of his creatures. This is fundamental to our identity, and to our place in God’s world (Gen 1:26,28; Ps 8:3-8). Adam names the animals (Gen 2:19-20), an intimate act. We name our children because they belong with us and we help them, care for them, form their identities. We are to care for God’s creatures. This world is our home, God’s creatures our companions. All is now spoilt, struggling under the burden of the lostness of humanity in sin. But God will set us, and this world, free in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:18-25). Our home will be very good again.

M42 Orion Nebula, M43, and NGC 1977 complexA Speaking Cosmos. The stars speak, and the sun and moon, in every place, every day and every night (Ps 19:1-6). We look up, and we are amazed: at galaxies, nebulae, the milky way. Here below the living creatures alongside us, and the plants and trees, even the landscapes in which we find our roots, they all speak of the Creator. Of his eternal power, his divine nature (Rom 1:20). Why are we not listening? We daily open the Holy Scriptures to hear them speak to us of our God and our Saviour. Yet our ears are less-exercised in hearing the speaking cosmos. Let us each day hear the voice of the sky and the earth. The world was created through the Word, the Logos (John 1:1-3). Before he became one of us, and spoke in human language, he spoke in what he made. Timeless words, woven within a world of intricacy, a world replete with patterns of beauty. This speaking cosmos is made through the Word, and belongs to him, to Jesus, who is Messiah and Word. It is his inheritance (Col 1:15-18), and he will gift it to us finally and fully on the day of his return. Then we will hear the voice of the speaking cosmos more clearly, and the voice of our speaking Lord with our own ears.

Pushing Forward our Horizon of Hope. Do we hope for death? For an end to the burden of a lost world, of war, of lies, of disability? We do hope for an end to these things. Yet, death is unnatural for us. We are created for life. Do we hope to be without the bodies that carry our identity, our human consciousness? To be without the eyes that looked, the ears that heard, the hands that touched – the experiences that made us who we are? To be unclothed is deeply unnatural (2 Cor 5:1-9). Jesus is not unclothed: he died to redeem us and the whole cosmos – to bring salvation of soul, body, time and space – and then he returned from the dead in resurrection life. To be with him is to be safe, in life and in death. Safe, until that day, when we will be clothed with life again, eternal life. To live in our home set free from the burden of sin. Our Horizon of Hope is not the day of our death. Heaven is not our home, or our ultimate goal.  Our Horizon of Hope is the day of our living again, our own resurrection (Rom 8:18-25). To be true to the teaching of Holy Scripture we must Push Forward Our Horizon of Hope. Let us set our hope fully on the grace to be revealed when he comes (1 Peter 1:13). Let us follow Christ in wholehearted faith, and meet him and each other once again here – and know the place for the first time.