Christmas Commentary by Dr. Dennis Ormseth

LRC Commentary for Year A: Christmas Season

Introduction

1. Christmas Eve

2. Christmas Day

3. First Sunday after Christmas

Introduction. The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share that “all the earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Christmas season is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? The stories, it is helpful to observe, are as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel.

1. Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Psalm 96

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“O sing to the lord a new song; sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples”

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming. We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is in the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness. As we noted in comments on Isaiah 7:10-16, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the “darkness” in which people walk, is the “distress and hunger” they experienced looking out on the devastated Earth in a time of warfare between the nations. That is to say, the metaphor of “darkness” refers to more than a spiritual or moral condition; it points to the lived experience when the physical landscape has been disordered and its productivity destroyed by human sinfulness. So also with regard to the contrasting image of “the light.” Here the prospects for the people are reversed. As the nation is multiplied, the people rejoice as at the harvest. The people are freed from oppression; and the boots of the ‘tramping warriors” and all the bloodied garments of war are to be burned. The birth of a child initiates a lasting reign of peace with justice and righteousness. The

cessation of violent destruction, coupled with the fulfillment of life as embodied in the promised reign of a wise and gracious king. All of this comprises the “light shining in the darkness.”

Borg and Crossan develop the parallel passage from darkness to light exhibited in Luke’s story of Christmas, reading it within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.”

The false character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest: “either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’” Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been told the story of this destruction by his mother Mary, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared.

Contrast this “darkness’ with the “light” of Luke’s story. The night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory.”

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one who turns the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea

and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—with the singing trees making up the chorus!

2. Nativity of our Lord, Christmas Day

Psalm 97 or 98

Isaiah 62:6-12 or Isaiah 52:7-10

Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14(5-12)

Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.” (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our comment on the readings for Christmas Eve). Again our question is: What exactly gives rise to Earth’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness provided the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. The metaphor of a marriage covenant provides the link for these readings for Christmas Day: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62:4). This verse is not actually part of the assigned scripture. It would be helpful to include it for the liturgical reading, since it provides the premise for what follows. The land clearly benefits from this covenant between God and the people of Israel. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-90). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized “(p. 196). Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day share this premise, and extend the scope of the significance of Christmas. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: The Word that is from the

beginning, is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.)

So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for both the human and non-human creatures. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

3. First Sunday after Christmas

Psalm 148

Isaiah 63:7-9

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

The readings for the First Sunday after Christmas conform to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary so far. The circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged, and our understanding of the reason for it is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see comments on the lessons for Christmas Eve). Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings. The list fully illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness. Each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole. Significant additions to the list of participants identified in the psalms for Christmas Eve and Day are the human participants: kings, princes, women and men, old and young—all appropriate to the part they play in the Matthean Christmas story, to which we turn in this Sunday’s reading.

Why does all creation raise this chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created;” God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably. The reading from Isaiah adds to this as further reason an awareness of God’s own saving presence

among God’s faithful people (no mere messenger or angel is the agent of salvation). With the prophet, they remember God’s mercy, the specific event recalled in this remembrance being the Exodus out of Egypt (read beyond the assigned verses, through v. 14).

So also the section of the Christmas story from Matthew assigned for this Sunday: like Moses, Jesus escapes the ruthless violence of the one who rules over the Jews. As Borg and Crossan put it, this story would scream to the Jews of Jesus’ time as loudly as a giant newspaper headline: EVIL RULER SLAUGHTERS MALE INFANTS, PREDESTINED CHILD ESCAPES (p. 42). After a brief time of sanctuary in Egypt, the child returns home with his parents. The headline then might read, we suppose: GOD CALLS HIS SON OUT OF EGYPT. This Son will go on to give “a new law from a new mountain” (p. 44). But already it is clear what drives the plot of the Matthew’s story. The infant Jesus immediately encounters the violence that imperial rulers use to impose their will on God’s people. Death and the threat of death drive the narrative of Matthew’s “overture” forward. Death shadows the life of this boy from the very beginning. The threat of death turns Joseph and Mary away from their home in Bethlehem towards Nazareth in Galilee, where they will live in the shadow of the peace imposed by Roman victory. The story thus seems counter to the good news of the Lukan “overture,” with its proclamation of peace on earth with those whom God favors.” In the wider context of the hopes raised for the creation (see our comments on texts for Advent), the violence and the threats of violence appear still to forestall realization of the promised harmony between all creatures. It’s the same old thing over and over again: “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Nevertheless, all creation sings its praise. How so? The second reading for this Sunday, from Hebrews 2:10-18, provides elements of an answer, the answer, actually, that will take the remainder of Matthew’s gospel (and the other three gospels as well) to tell. Writing from the perspective of “the last days,” the author of Hebrews asserts that it was “fitting” that the God for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation “perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.” Here is the great question of the meaning of the incarnation in a new key. He who became flesh goes the way of the flesh, suffering pain and death. Why is this fitting, particularly coming from the God “for whom and through whom all things exist”? And how can one presume to speak at all of this way of salvation as “perfection?” The question is too immense to explore in any depth, either here in these comments or in a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas, but at least the preacher can place the question on the agenda for the seasons of Lent and Easter ahead. A beginning of the answer is that it is indeed precisely the same God “through whom all things exist” who works salvation in this way, by conjoining Godself with all creatures and taking part in the deep trauma of their experience, living with death as both brute fact and powerful threat. A comment from Christopher Southgate will have to suffice: God’s presence to the creation, he writes, is a suffering presence “of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience” (p. 52). The incarnation is accordingly “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil increation—both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures.” Just so, since this pertains to all creatures, considered both as collective species and as individuals. Hence, all things and all creatures find reason to rejoice.


Christmas Readings for Year A 2010-11

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

 

3. The Naming of Jesus

 

4. The Second Sunday after Christmas

 

Name of Jesus

Psalm 8

Numbers 6:22-27

Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 2:15-21

 

The readings for the festival of Name of Jesus observed on January 1 provide an exceptionally strong platform for personal and congregational resolutions concerning commitments to care of Earth here at the beginning of a New Year. That this “lesser festival” falls on a Saturday this year means that few congregations will observe it, unless they happen to have a tradition of a New Year’s Day Service. Congregations concerned to promote care for Earth may want to substitute this festival for the observance of the Second Sunday after Christmas.

 

The Gospel reading brings to completion the birth narrative of Luke. The infant is circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with Jewish custom and law, and named “Jesus” as instructed by the angel who announced his conception to Mary his mother at 1:31. The name, which means “the Lord saves” or “salvation from God,” tells us not only who this boy is (the Lord), but also what he is to do (save). As we have noted in our comments on the readings for Christmas Eve, in the cultural context of the Roman Empire this would be to say that Jesus, not Ceasar, is Lord and that his mission is “to save,” in accordance with the messianic hope of the Jewish people, by establishing God’s peace with justice and righteousness, as opposed to the imperial peace with victory. The accompanying readings reframe these affirmations in terms of their bearing on care of creation.

 

The first reading reminds us of the importance of God’s name in the Hebrew tradition. Frederick Houk Borsch sums it up this way: “The Lord’s name pronounced over them in blessing makes the Israelites God’s people. They are identified with and by God (see also Deut. 12:5 and esp. Isa. 43:1, ‘I have called you by my name, you are mine’). This makes them responsible to live as a people who honor God and show forth God’s righteousness and mercy in the world. It also makes God responsible for a people who are God’s own. The name is identity. It is character. It is powerful.” (New Proclamation Year B, 2002-2003, p. 59).  In this light, the naming of Jesus would seem to do all this for him: Jesus is identified as God’s messiah, the character of God is conferred upon him, and he is promised the power to do God’s will.

 

The first reading thus emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to God. The reading of Psalm 8, on the other hand, shifts attention to his humanity. Linked to the other readings for the festival by the psalmist’s praise of God’s “name” in its opening salutation, the psalm has also been seen to have christological meaning because of its reference to ben adam (v. 4), which when translated literally as “son of man” was interpreted as one of the New Testament titles for Christ. While ben adam has been translated more anthropologically in the NRSV as “mortal,” a Christological interpretation of the psalm is nonetheless still of interest here.

 

The psalm gives voice to one who honors God’s name: “O lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” As Frederick Borsch’s comments, the reading presents the picture of “the psalmist gazing up at the night sky like Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle citadels there!’ We now look up and know that there are more than 100 billion galaxies!” The psalmist is humbled by this awesome vision: “What is human life in this scheme?”  he asks.

 

What indeed? The question has long been central to the conflict over the role of the Christian tradition in fostering and/or restraining the environmental bad behavior of humans in Western culture. And this text, along with Genesis 1:26-28 to which it is related, is at the heart of the conflict. The psalm clearly evokes the sense of awe and wonder that humans experience in contemplating the universe. At the same time, however, it proceeds to claim for human beings an exceptionally high status in relationship to the nonhuman creation: “You have given them dominion over the works of your hand; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field; the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” Cultural historian Lynn White argued that the term “dominion” is the basis for Christian legitimation of human alienation from and domination over non-human nature; and this psalm is freely cited in support of his thesis. Biblical scholars have shown, however, that while some thinkers early in the history of the industrial revolution advanced this interpretation, it is not valid. “Dominion” is properly understood as the responsibility for preserving and caring for Earth and all its creatures, a responsibility that has been characterized variously in terms of stewardship, partnership, servanthood and priesthood. While there are significant differences attending the choice between these alternatives, they share a common premise that human beings have a God-given vocation relative to non-human creation (see the numerous discussions, for example,. in Fretheim, Southgate, Green Bible, Mark Wallace, and so on). 

 

“What are humans made for?” queried Wendell Berry in the midst of an American farm crisis. Human beings are made for the care of creation, this text answers; however, we had best understand how that responsibility should be characterized and carried out. Yes, the text appears to authorize an exceptional status for human beings—due to powers of imagination and reason that are not necessarily different in kind from those of some nonhuman species, although certainly differ in degree. Humans are a species of animal life, but they do have demonstrated capacities of mind and spirit that far surpass even their closest kin in the non-human world. With respect to the environmental crisis, the question is not whether humans have these powers, but rather why we use them so exclusively for our own anthropocentric purposes and with such drastically destructive results for the rest of creation.

 

Read as a christological text coupled with the day’s Gospel reading, Psalm 8 leads us to suggest that as a human being Jesus fully embraces that very same vocation of care of creation. His fulfillment of that vocation can be regarded as an essential part of what it means to call him by his name, Jesus, or “the Lord saves.” Jesus does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation. This is what his “dominion” is finally about.

 

The validity of this perspective needs to be tested as we take up the full narrative of his life and mission in the Gospels, of course. How does Jesus actually demonstrate care of creation? we will need to ask. The alternative second reading from Philippians 2 already provides a crucial insight, however, as to the manner by which Jesus fulfills this vocation. What Jesus does not do, the text tells is, is seek equality with God:  Even “though he was in the form of God,” the text reads, he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

 

“Grasping after divine status” is, after all, an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind as narrated in Genesis 2: Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; and they refuse to respect the limits set on their nature by their Creator. As the wily serpent knew, they would most certainly want to slip the noose of mortality if there was a way to do it. If they are indeed made only “a little lower than God” and “crowned with glory and honor,” why not reach for the top? Why not exercise our powers as though we are actually divine, determining for ourselves the purposes, values, and uses of all things below us?  Vested with such powers of reason and spirit as we manifestly have, why not live as though there are no limits to our being, including those imposed upon our animal bodies, embedded as they are within the ecology of Earth and subject to the dying that is an inherent aspect of its biology?

 

Being saved by Jesus could means, accordingly, that we are no longer driven to grasp for equality with God, that we too refuse to exploit for ourselves the nearly divine powers conferred upon us. Even when we legitimately come to see ourselves as being drawn up into the life of the Triune God and participating in that life as children of God—and therefore in some sense equal in status to the Son of God (no longer slaves but heirs)—the Spirit of God’s Son in our hearts (see Galations 4: 6-7) conforms our mind to his, so that we “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than” ourselves, looking not to our own interests, but to the interest of others. As Christopher Southgate writes, “The Christian conviction is that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. One’s life is from moment to moment not one’s own possession, but something received as a gift from God. What is said of Christ’s equality with God in Philippians 2 is true of authentic human being in itself—that it is not something to be grasped at, but to be received and responded to in service of God and others.” (p. 73). In summary, Jesus saves by restoring us not only to right relationship with God and our fellow humans, but also to the loving service of the non-human creation for which God originally created us. 

 

 

Second Sunday After Christmas

Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:(1-9) 10-18

 

With the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, the bells of Christmas ring out green themes yet one more time. The salvation for which we praise God here at the end of the Christmas season is decidedly ‘down to earth.” The repetition of the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel from Christmas Day underscores the deeply incarnational character of God saving work (see our comments on the readings for those days). But there are a couple of new notes to the music here in these texts. In the first place, if human beings have a vocation to care for Earth (see the commentary for Name of Jesus), they show that non-human creatures in turn have a vocation of care for the humans (see Fretheim’s discussion of “The Vocation of the Nonhuman” in his God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 278-284). The psalm praises God for the extraordinary care he shows to the people of Israel, in granting peace within their borders and directing the powers of nature so to fill them with ”the finest of wheat.” The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to the return of the people to the land, when “they shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.”  

 

Nonetheless, it is God’s restoration of the human vocation in Christ that evokes the final praise of the season. Some did not know him, John reminds us, and some still do not receive him. But those who receive him and believe in his name are empowered to live as children of God. Indeed, “he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” This was God’s plan for the fullness of time, our second reading from Ephesians suggests, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10.) 

 

The accent in both the reading from Ephesians and the reading in the Gospel is on “fullness,” the pleroma: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Commentators seem reticent to instruct their readers as to the meaning of this pleroma, the term occurring singularly here in John, and only somewhat more frequently in Pauline literature. It clearly has to do with the giving and receiving of gifts, activity inherent in the event Christmas celebrates (and reflected more or less appropriately in the characteristic practices of the celebration), and prompts the following theological reflection.

 

In his book on “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth,” David Bentley Hart describes the gift of God within the Trinitarian narrative in a manner that possibly illuminates the meaning of pleroma. “In the Trinity,” he writes,

 

the gift is entire, and entirely ‘exposed’:  The Father gives himself to the Son, and again to the Spirit, and the Son offers everything up to the Father in the Spirit, and the Spirit returns all to the Father through the Son, eternally. Love of, the gift to, and delight in the other is one infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, in which desire at once beholds and donates the other.

 

This infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, we would suggest, is the “fullness” from which we have received “grace upon grace,”—that is, we would additionally interpolate, the grace of redemption in Christ upon the grace of creation. Creation, Hart explains,

 

is always already implicated in this giving of the gift because it is—in being inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit—already a gift shared among the persons of the Trinity, in transit, a word spoken by God in his Word and articulated in endless sequences of difference by the Spirit and offered back to the Father. . . . Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the pneumatological generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as a possession but always as grace. 

Creatures participate in this “infinite circle of God’s love” simply by being creatures. As such, it is “all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend signs of love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape.” Only when the gift is actively withheld is it not given, and this “suppression of the gift” is sin. There is, however, the knowledge that in God “nothing is lost and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again” (p. 268).

 

Thus, we conclude that the divine “fullness of grace and truth” is ample enough to embrace and enfold the cosmic fullness of “all things,” which are to be gathered into Christ “in the fullness of time,” “things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s infinite grace is inexhaustible, and allows no final limitation by any creaturely categories, sexual, ethnic, political, nor even the most basic differentiations of living creatures, the being of species, and the non-living physical creation. The significance of this fullness of grace for both the human and the non-human vocations lifted up in these readings is this: if non-human creatures participate in the divine circle of love by naturally fulfilling their vocation of service to humans, then humankind’s refusal of its vocation of care for the non-human creation does interrupt the dynamism of giving and receiving. But that refusal will not stand. It cannot bring that dynamism of God’s fullness to a complete halt, not with respect to any creature, considered in terms of either its corporate or its individual reality (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of human and non-human “selving” and “heaven for pelicans” in his The Groaning of Creation). God’s giving and receiving and giving again of creation is finally not to be denied.

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