The Christian calendar year: GLORY! THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY Dec 25
by Steve Bell
On the Feast of Nativity, we look into the humble, entirely vulnerable face of the Christ Child and ask how we can possibly perceive the “splendour of the Father, and the figure of His substance” as Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen has so eloquently suggested we might. What possible internal concord can there be between the Almighty God (above whom there is no other) and a newborn child conceived under dubious circumstances and born in an animal shelter in the backwater of a powerful empire? And yet, this is the grand paradox that has fired the ardour and devotion of Christians for more than two millennia.
My friend, Alana Levandoski, wrote an elegant song simply titled “Glory” that captures the wonder of a revelation almost too bright for human eyes. For, if indeed, the Sovereign of the cosmos – in order to communicate his truest nature and the content of his love – would condescend to the form of a child born into lowly and obscure circumstance, first announced to uncouth and unwashed shepherds, then we have to completely reboot our all-too-human understanding of words like ‘glory,’ ‘majesty,’ ‘power,’ and ‘authority.’ It simply changes everything… for God’s glory is here revealed as the power of love, humbly percolating from the bottom up, rather than as raw power imposed from the top down.
music and lyrics by Alana Levandoski
We stood watch, just like any other night
Counting sheep, just trying to stay upright
Shuffling our feet,
we heard the beat of an angel’s wing…
An angel’s wing
And above, we saw the strangest thing
The light all around began to sing:
Glory! Glory! Glory!
We left the fields,
moved by the angel’s song
Even the sheep seemed to sing along
We ran like drunken poets
Looking for their muse, to the beat
Of angel’s wings
And below, we saw the strangest sign
All at once, our hearts knew what to cry:
Glory! Glory! Glory!
(Listen to the above song at www.pilgrimyear.com/songs: Christmas Chapter Two)
In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark claims that the most outlandish and revolutionary phrase written in first-century Rome was “For God so loved the world” – words attributed to Jesus in the gospel of John. Stark argues that the pagan world would have had no catcher’s mitt for such a phrase. The gods, as they were understood, did not love the world – they used the world. And they were not worshipped for their virtue or character, but rather were ceremoniously placated for reasons of personal gain, revenge, conquest or safety. The legends of the gods’ all-too-human characteristics of selfishness, pride, lust, greed, rapaciousness and skullduggery are legion, and “worship” pandered to these base instincts. People of this time would not have had categories for the idea of a God whose basic orientation was other-centered, self-donating love. Yet, this is the clear message of Christmas. The early Christians understood, in practical terms, that if God “so loved the world,” then so must they, which accounts for the formation of early Christian communities that lived selflessly in solidarity with the suffering rather than in fortresses that offered escape.
Malcolm Guite offers an illuminating poem that beautifully expresses the heart of this paradox. Indeed, so much more can be said about the mystery of Christ’s nativity. But this poem uniquely paints a picture of the nature of God revealed in startling contrast to the pagan gods, as they would have been understood in first-century Rome.
by Malcolm Guite (music by Steve Bell)
They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But You came down
You dropped down from the
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other gods demanded fear
But You gave love
Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought You to Your knees
Your blood was warm
They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead
They towered above our mortal plain
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn
Aloof from birth and death and pain
But You were born
Born to these burdens born by all
Born with us all astride the grave
Weak to be with us when we fall
But strong to save
(Listen to the above song at www.pilgrimyear.com/songs: Christmas Chapter Three.)
This contrast between the gods of antiquity and the God of the nativity has enormous implications for worship and for human behaviour and relations precisely because, according to the Scriptures, we have been made in the image of this God. If we want a picture of what a redeemed and restored (reborn) humanity might look like, we must begin with the difference between gods made in our own image, and the Son of God who descended to this mortal plain in order to suggest otherwise.
Steve Bell is a storyteller through and through. For 30 years, he has offered encouragement to audiences throughout North America through concerts, song-writing and teaching. With a vocational calling to “refresh Christian faith and spiritual tradition for the weary and the wary,” Steve is known as much for his award-winning musical career as he is for his social commentary and theological insights. He has written numerous articles for online and print publications and has penned books on Scripture and the Liturgical Year. He lives with his wife Nanci in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation.
Steve’s Pilgrim Year series (Novalis Press) is a 7-volume collection of reflections based on the Christian calendar year. It is available for purchase at www.pilgrimyear.com.