Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord

The Letter to Titus gives us none of Christmas’s usual fare.

December 25, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

The Letter to Titus gives us none of Christmas’s usual fare.

It mentions neither Mary, Joseph, angels, nor shepherds. But it can take us into the Incarnation by another route. It prompts us to view Christmas in light of the larger salvation story in which it appears. It also offers a description of the God we meet in the manger in Bethlehem.

The language of this passage is dense, offering a number of foundational and profound theological statements. Probably the author of Titus took these sentences from an early Christian hymn or existing liturgical formula (maybe a baptismal liturgy); the string of theological assertions concludes with an endorsement of what precedes it: “the saying is sure” (Titus 3:8a).

These claims about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, baptism, eternal life, and more are important for the articulation of Christian doctrine. Still, preachers are wise to remember that explaining doctrine is one of the most effective ways of killing a sermon. On Christmas Day, a sermon about doctrine will come across as well as socks and underwear under the tree–stuff we need, but not all that exciting or imaginative. The theological mysteries embedded in Christmas and Incarnation can work their magic just fine when pastors think better of using the pulpit to speculate about the inner life of the Trinity.

But none of this means that Titus 3:4-7 has nothing to offer a Christmas sermon. Far from it! The passage resonates with a number of ideas that the setting–Jesus’ Nativity–propels to the foreground. Here are three to consider.

Tidings of Goodness and Loving Kindness
For one thing, the Letter to Titus describes the coming of Jesus with powerful, evocative language. Not just his birth, but his whole life is described as an epiphany in 3:4 (epiphaino, translated as “appeared” in the NRSV). (For more on the significance of epiphany language in the Pastoral Epistles, see my commentary for Christmas Eve on Titus 2:11-14.) This means that God shows up in Jesus. Jesus manifests God, specifically “the goodness and loving kindness of God,” according to 3:4.

As many commentaries on Titus note with ample detail, the words goodness and loving kindness (chrestotes and philanthropia in Greek) appear together many times in ancient Greek literature, in both Jewish texts and others from the Greco-Roman world. They describe virtuous action among human beings, but they also characterize God’s activity toward humanity. How do we know that God meets us with goodness and loving kindness? We see it clearly in Jesus, who is “God our Savior.”

We’ve come a long way, then, from earlier in Advent when John the Baptizer’s searing calls for repentance may have left us wondering about God’s disposition toward humanity. God sounded a little harsher then. But a God of goodness and loving kindness does not necessarily cancel out a God who comes bearing a winnowing fork. Instead, the goodness and loving kindness we see in Jesus qualifies our understanding of the judgment that John (and Jesus) talk about in the Gospels. The face of divine judgment actually offers us reassurance and comfort, when we understand that judgment is a function of God’s compassion.

Theology for Exhortation
A second point derives from understanding the reason why this passage makes the claims it does. In the Letter to Titus, exhortations about how believers should conduct themselves usually precede explanations of the theological basis for living in such a way. Consequently, the lofty theological assertions in 3:4-7 do not stand alone; they serve as the ground for Christian living, as it is discussed in 2:15-3:3. The context, then, in which this reading sits, is an appeal for readers to be at peace with others. The author points attention to God’s salvific mercy, precisely so that this mercy will inspire Christians to live charitably toward other people (see especially 3:1-3).

At Christmastime, then, these verses might prompt preachers to help congregations reflect on the kind of living that the Incarnation might inspire. Instead of using a sermon to describe what Christmas is supposed to be about, consider this question: what is celebrating Christmas supposed to do for Christian communities? Of course, observing Christmas leads us to worship God–no unimportant thing. Christmas also instructs us about God and the nature of our salvation. Perhaps our celebrations should also drive us toward greater goodness and loving kindness toward others–all others. We do this, not because the Letter to Titus says to watch out if we don’t. We do it because irreproachable behavior toward others embodies the qualities of God that are on display in the story of Jesus–beginning at his birth and extending throughout his whole life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus’ Birth, Our Rebirth
Finally, the grand theological summary offered in this passage reminds us that we approach Christmas from a variety of perspectives. Walking through Advent, experiencing Christmas in a liturgical setting, and reading the Infancy Narratives in Matthew or Luke often impress upon us the wonder, fragility, and promise associated with Jesus’ Nativity. From another angle, looking back at Christmas from our post-Easter perspective, Jesus’ birth accumulates meaning generated by the whole scope of the Christian message. This perspective allows us to see things beyond the manger, things like the gift of the Holy Spirit, the hope of our resurrection, and our adoption into God’s family as heirs. Considering Titus on Christmas Day directs our vision along this latter perspective.

Following this perspective, preachers may choose to grasp onto one or two specific themes from Titus 3:4-7 and help a congregation see how such themes shape the perspective we take on Christmas. One especially fruitful theme comes from verse 5, where the author refers to baptism and speaks of “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” In Jesus’ birth we glimpse the promise of our rebirth. In the wonder of God made flesh, we imagine what God might yet make of us. In the coming of a baby appointed to save the whole world, we discover more than hope that things might turn out better for the world in some awaited future. We dare to trust God’s promise that we will participate in such a future.