When Eight Days Were Fulfilled

“When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Luke 2:21

Back in grade school, I flipped through a highly modernized version of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, and came across this definition of “Sunday”: “In Christian countries, the day of the football game.” While I imagine my sons and I will take in a few downs together some time today, observing Christmas season its full duration is a virtue, brimming with goods “internal to the practice.”

In addition to serving as a day to sleep in late, and watch parades and college football televised from warmer climates, January 1 has variously been identified by Christians as the Feast of the Circumcision; the Holy Name of Jesus; Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos in the East) and the World Day of Peace…and I’m sure I’ve left out a few. So there are a world of reasons beyond the mythical NCAA football championship, no longer even “determined” on New Year’s Day, to celebrate.

So, if you think you’ve already exhausted the season, here are a few items to ponder:

Saint Egidio’s annual Christmas lunch with the poor,

Christianity Today’s visual meditation on the annunciation to the shepherds,

The Matthew’s House Project Christmas meditation,

and Ken Myers’ Christmas letter reflection on the intellectual embarrassment of the Incarnation (I include a fragmentary excerpt below, since Mars Hill Audio has not uploaded the letter to the Internet):

More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God’s creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. “A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate — part of the world — is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so.”

…But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies — what we actually do in space and time — are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts — things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn’t threatened by Christians as long as they aren’t too “Incarnational.” As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren’t significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but as long as they don’t actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.

Or, read the latest issue of The Other Journal, in which William Cavanaugh and Eugene McCarraher, both of whom have spoken at recent EP gatherings, are asked about the fallen state of the Creation in which the Incarnate Word pitches his tent.

(Originally posted Tuesday, January 1, 2008)

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