Holiness & Christmas

By Steve Manskar

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

John 1:14 from The Message by Eugene Peterson

Christmas has become a sentimentalized celebration of gift giving and gluttony. We read the story about Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; about no room at the inn and the manger; about the shepherds and the angels; about the wise men from the east who follow a mysterious star to Bethlehem. This story is surrounded by songs about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, chestnuts roasting, and presents under the tree. It’s all comforting and cozy and sweet.

What gets lost in all the religious and secular trappings of Christmas we all enjoy is the call to holiness contained in what God has done, and is doing, in the incarnation. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 that summarizes what began in that Bethlehem stable:

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

This is a powerful description of what God did through Mary and Joseph, with a little help from some shepherds and a few angels. In Charles Wesley’s words, God “emptied himself of all but love” (see “And Can It Be that I Should Gain”, stanza 3). God willingly set aside his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience and became a flesh and blood human being. He came into the world just like all of us. Mary suffered the pains of labor and Jesus came into this world through all the suffering, blood, and amniotic fluid of childbirth.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar and sentimentalized that much of its power has been muted. It’s important for us to pay attention to the people God chose to participate in his incarnation. They were poor, unknown, and oppressed Jews living in an occupied land in a region known for rebellion (Galilee). I think it’s important to realize that God could have chosen to “move into the neighborhood” of the privileged, powerful, and religious elite. But he didn’t. He chose to “move into the neighborhood” with people who had no standing or power. The ruler of the universe, the King of kings, and Lord of lords chose to be born to a Jewish girl betrothed to a carpenter from Nazareth (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – John 1:46). The gospel accounts of the incarnation tell us that God “moved into the neighborhood” with the poor, oppressed, powerless, and working people of the world.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

The incarnation of God in Jesus reveals the nature of holiness of heart and life. It is the life of self-giving, self-emptying love of God and those whom God loves (neighbor and self). John Wesley puts it this way:

“I have learned that true Christianity consists, not in a set of opinions or of forms and ceremonies, but in holiness of heart and life, in a thorough imitation of our divine Master.”

Holiness, in other words, is what happens when we join Jesus and the work he is doing in our neighborhood. It is embodying the love of God for the world in the places we live, work, and play. The Christmas story tells us that Christians are to particularly embody the love of God in the places and among the people he knows best: the poor, oppressed, and voiceless.

The mission of Covenant Discipleship is to form a culture of holiness in the congregation. The General Rule of Discipleship provides a practical guide for “imitation of our divine Master”: To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In Covenant Discipleship groups ordinary Christians meet weekly to help each other grow in holiness of heart and life by “watching over one another in love” through mutual accountability and support for discerning what God is up to in the neighborhood and find ways to participate in that work. Along the way the group members become leaders in discipleship, some of whom answer God’s call to the ministry of Class Leader. They become disciples who disciple others by extending the General Rule of Discipleship into the congregation.

“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

For Methodists Christmas reveals the depth of God’s love for the world. The story of Mary giving birth to God’s son in a barn is good news for the world, especially the poor and voiceless people everywhere. God’s love and justice is for all. All people who bear the name “Christian” and profess love for God are called to embody that love by the way they live.

I’ll close with the following words from John Wesley:

“By Methodists I mean, a people who profess to pursue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God; who place religion in an uniform resemblance of the great object of it; in a steady imitation of Him they worship, in all his imitable perfections; more particularly, in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart, and governing the life.”

And this Christmas hymn from Charles Wesley:

Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend:
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears:
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.

Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is born!

See the eternal Son of God
A mortal son of man
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.

We, earth’s children, now rejoice,
The Prince of Peace proclaim;
With heaven’s host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel’s name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.