Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Theology is never acontextual

christmas candles with greens
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December 24, 2022

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

For the Nativity of Our Lord, the Revised Common Lectionary proposes two texts from one of the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus). Titus 2:11-14, the text under consideration here, is scheduled for Christmas Eve, whereas Titus 3:4-7 will be read on Christmas day. Both texts, short theological treatises of their own, put forward a theology of salvation for all people (2:11) while focusing on the moral obligations that being part of the Christian faith entails (2:12; 3:7). 

Liturgically, it makes sense that both texts have been chosen for these dates as they include several literary motifs that emphasized God’s manifestation (epiphany in 2:11 and 3:4). In Titus 2:13, the author implies that such manifestation has happened, but it is also an event we are hoping for. The Lectionary seems then to link such expectation to the imminent birth of Jesus, “Our Savior” (2:13). These texts are also appropriate because they skip, even as they allude to, the gruesome reality of the cross: both mention that Jesus gave himself for us without naming how such salvific action takes place (2:14; 3:5). It is worth noticing that neither this letter nor any of the other Pastoral Epistles contain any reference to the cross or to the process of crucifixion.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Titus belongs, together with 1 and 2 Timothy, to the “Pastoral Letters.” Most scholars agree that this is a pseudepigraphic corpus. Although they claimed to be written by Paul, it is highly unlikely that the apostle penned these writings. They are most likely written by an author in the Pauline circle, probably one generation or two after Paul’s death. This fact is relevant not so much for what it says about authorship but for the consequences of understanding church developments. These letters are called “pastoral” because the authors focus on practical elements concerning communal rule rather than on doctrinal disputes. Instead of contesting beliefs about who belongs to the group or making the case for Jesus as God’s son, the Pastoral Letters are concerned with inward/outward community boundaries: 

  • How should members of the Christian community behave so that the community remains in peace? 
  • How should communities navigate their relationship with the Roman Empire? 
  • In other words, what does the community remain faithful to its own identity as it becomes increasingly visible and established within the society at large? 

The concerns addressed in these questions partly explain why these verses summarize the good news even as they skip the reality of the cross, a way of torture that the Roman Empire deployed to chastise insurrectionists. In other words, these questions signal that the addressed community, or the author writing to them, worries about how to be “good” and “respectable” citizens. Subsequently, the text in question is not theology in the abstract, it is a kerygmatic proclamation that uses theology to rein in practices that, at least in the author’s mind, were getting out of control. Scholars have long noticed how initially marginalized groups, religious or not, become institutionalized by adapting their practices and beliefs to mainstream cultural norms. In the case of the developments in early Christianity, the Pastoral Epistles offer an example to look more closely at such dynamics: the more these communities became visible, the more they catered to the pressures of the Roman Empire. The domestic codes might be interpreted as an attempt to fit into imperial mores (see below). 

Scholars have also pointed out that the Pastoral Epistles evince a more structured community than the ones present in the rest of the Pauline canon. It makes sense that as groups evolve over time, they become more institutionalized, starting to develop offices and structure their members’ functions more rigidly. This is important for our text because, although it seems like a liturgical/kerygmatic piece, its reference to good works is not abstract, universal, or acontextual. God gives salvation to all through Jesus, who gives himself up for us (2:14). The consequence is immediate: the believer is stripped of any wrongdoing, gets their heart purified, and their heart is led into good works. The theological condensation can hardly be more packed: the religious credo is closely tied to ethical behaviors.  

What are the ethical consequences? To answer this question, we have to look right before and after the pericope. Titus 2:15 invites preaching with authority while submitting to the established authorities. Right before this pericope, we encounter one of the New Testament household codes. A literary genre in itself,  the domestic codes express conduct-related rules addressed to different members of the household. Although the types of addressees vary, the ethical import remains the same: husbands, wives, children, and slaves are routinely included. In this case, the code addresses presbiteros and presbiteras (although it is not clear whether it refers to an office) and the younger members whom these older men/women need to educate. The instructions are highly gendered, with an emphasis on women working at home and being submissive to their husbands (2:5). The code ends with instructions to the slaves (not to the slaveowners). Here the emphasis is on submission and accommodation, mirroring the accommodation that the Empire requires of the assembly to continue functioning. 

The placing of an allegedly generic theological reflection next to a highly hierarchical set of instructions reminds the contemporary interpreter that theology is never acontextual and that even abstract and generic invitations for “love,” “good works,” or “justice” only acquire meaning in the context of material circumstances.