Christmas sermons: variations on a theme

Christmas is approaching. For those who are called to preach with Christmas, it means a time of (sometimes desperately) searching for creativity. How do you tell the very well-known story of Christ’s birth this time again? One option is of course to larder one’s sermon with all kinds of moving stories and anecdotes. That would not be my choice. On the contrary, in this post I will argue for a moment of reflection on the motivation for the Incarnation. Why did Christ came to us? Why was he born in Bethlehem?

The answer seems maybe obvious. The standard answer many of us would be inclined to give goes something like this: Christ had to come in order to save us. Take a look of your own Christmas sermons or those of others and you will find out that this is the basic scheme of nearly all of these sermons. That is, the motivation for the Incarnation is explained in terms of our fallen condition. In other words, this is an infralapsarian scheme. Last year I offered an example of such a sermon, from Karl Barth. No one will deny its truth and its worth in telling the story of Christmas. But is it the whole story? Asking this question means – in theological terms – asking whether Christ became man exclusively because of our sins. Would he have become man if the Fall had not occurred? Put differently (and less speculatively): can we offer other motives for the Incarnation, independent from our sinful condition? This is, of course, a supralapsarian take on the Incarnation. In the remainder of this post, I will offer two examples of this supralapsarian variation of the story of the Incarnation. Of course, these are offered by way of example, in order to point a direction, instead of fleshing out arguments.

mccordadamsIn her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (2006), the late Marilyn McCord Adams (1943-2017) defends the thesis that Christ’s mission is not so much saving us from our sins, but rescue us from horrors. Christ as our horror-defeater. Note that the motivation for the Incarnation here is indeed sin-independent, since McCord Adams holds that ‘horrors cannot have its origin in misused created freedom’ and that ‘humans were radically vulnerable to horrors fron the beginning, even in Eden’ (p. 36 – italics original). A Christmas sermon along these lines will posit Christ’s birth as a participation in our horrors. Moreover, it will not explain his participation in our horrors in terms of sharing our guilt, but in terms of sharing our situation by which we are ‘overpowered’. You might even want to go as far McCord Adams by suggesting that this is what God, as our Creator responsible for our vulnerability to horrors, owes us… Note, that McCord Adams’s proposal is indeed sin-indepent, but it is still ‘problem-driven’, the problem now being our vulnerability to horrors… Although I admire McCord Adams ingenious book, I am not completely convinced.

So, is there another variation available? Yes, I think so. Let’s consider a proposal from Edwin Chr. van Driel in his Incarnation Anyway. Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (2008). In this monograph he develops incarnationanywaythree arguments for a supralapsarian Christology, in conversation with Schleiermacher, Dorner, and Barth. One of his arguments is the Argument from Divine Friendship. My rendition here does not justice to the richness of his thoughts. However, it will hopefully serve to see the supralapsarian logic at work. ‘Friendship’, Van Driel says, ‘is motivated by a delight in and a love for the other’. Of course, he explains, friendships can be in danger, be under pressure, and so on. Friends, real friends, will look of course for reconciliation. However, that means that the wish for reconciliation is prompted by a deeper motivation: the longing for friendship, for community, for mutual love. That is what is at stake in the Incarnation. God is not merely solving ‘our problem’. His goal is friendship with us. This might sound rather familiar to you. Yet it could lead be translated into a rather different Christmas sermon. To illustrate what I have in mind, I can suffice with pointing to a sermon of Samuel Wells, which offers an eloquent illustration. Wells very convincingly points out that the heart of God’s reaching out for us can not be captured (only) in the word ‘for (God did this for me)’, but rather in the word ‘with’ (God wants to be ‘with us’). If you look for inspiration for your Christmas sermon along these supralapsarian lines, you might watch this video. Anyway, my Christmas sermon of this year will follow the trail set out by Van Driel en Wells.

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Eucharist and suffering

Six years ago, in 2006, Marilyn McCord Adams, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, published her book Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press). The book is based on her Gifford Lectures from 1998-1999 and is rich and provocative. In this book McCord Adams pleads for an understanding of the eucharist, which does justice to the intense suffering in this world. This understanding is part of her larger project to provide a christological answer, not only to the problem of sin, but principally to the ‘more fundamental problem of horrors’. In short, in her proposal, Christ is our horror-defeater. His suffering and resurrection are the guarantee that in God’s future ‘the plot will resolve for everyone’.

But what about the meantime? That’s where the eucharist comes in. McCord Adams argues for a very strong notion of Christ’s presence in the eucharist. Because we, human beings, are embodied persons, we are in need of embodied encounters. Christ shares the table with us and gives Himself to us. But, ‘because we are horror-participants, He sets a specific agenda: all conflicts out on the table, immediately!’ (294).

“God in Christ crucified offers us His Flesh to chomp and bite and tear with our teeth, invites us to get even, horror for horror, urges us to fragment God’s own Body in return for the way God has allowed horrors to shred the fabric of our lives.” (294)

It should be evident by now that McCord Adams needs a stronger notion of eucharistic presence than Calvin’s. Indeed, while she is fairly critical about Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper, calling it ‘philosophically underdeveloped’ (299). Luther’s notion of ubiquity won’t do either, because it’s ‘philosophically incoherent and un-Chalcedonian, insofar as it confuses the Divine and human natures’ (303). Her own proposal is an analogy with the incarnation, namely ‘impanation’: “Christ’s Body is present on the altar without being extended according to its human nature, but present and extended according to its bread nature” (305).

As I said, her book is rich and provocative. It raises quite a few questions and objections, but I’ll leave them aside for the moment. Instead, I will point to a counter-proposal from Nicholas Wolterstorff. Like McCord Adams, he both sacrifices the doctrine of divine impassibility and links God’s suffering love to the Lord’s Supper. Unlike McCord Adams however, he thinks that Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is especially valuable in this regard. In one of the articles in his recent book Hearing the Call, Wolterstorff shows that Calvin repeatedly speaks of the wounds of God in the context of people being wronged by others. He cites Calvin’s comments on Genesis 9:5-6 and Habakkuk 2:5-6 in support of this view. It is not an isolated thought in Calvin, but firmly rooted in his conceptions of human nature, the way to deal with suffering, and so forth. Then Wolterstorff writes:

“Though I do not propose to develop it here, it is worth noting that this theme of the wounding of God is also given a specifically christological and sacramental development in Calvin. At one point in his discussion of the Eucharist he says: “We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; … that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren… (Institutes IV,xvii,38).”

What is happening here? Wolterstorff’s approach provides us with a notion of divine suffering that is in a sense even stronger than McCord Adams’s. He makes God not the opponent of the horror-participant (like McCord Adams does), but her companion in her suffering. And the Eucharist is no longer the place to deal with our conflicts with God, but a place of consolation and sharing of Christ’s ‘shalom’. In the Lord’s Supper we are assured by Christ that He participates in our brokenness (cf. Lament for a Son, 39,40).

While McCord Adams’s approach suggests that our suffering could – at least to a certain degree – be compensated by ‘biting and chomping’ God, Wolterstorff’s proposal is more modest. There is no solution, no real answer to  the problem of suffering. He simply claims that Christ is there, participating in our brokenness, in our suffering. Do we really need more than that?