Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

How Jesus saves matters

December 24, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

The lectionary selects this excerpt from Titus because its language fits into the theological message of incarnation that Christians begin to celebrate with Jesus’ nativity on Christmas Eve. “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all” (2:11) is language we commonly use to open Christmas Eve services. However, when we pay attention to the language throughout this passage and consider its context, we discover ways to approach Titus’ rhetorical use of the appearance of God’s salvation with reverent suspicion. 

Context matters

First, an important and quick reminder about the letter to Titus in general: Though the author claims to be Paul, it is abundantly clear that Paul did not write this letter. Another writer used Paul’s name and reputation to make an argument about the church in the second century (circa 120 C.E.): what it should believe and how it should be structured. 

Whereas Paul speaks of his audiences as loosely structured “assemblies” meeting in houses, the author of Titus presents a firm vision of a structured “church” with clear rules and hierarchies. Their presentation closely aligns their vision of the church with the sociopolitical hierarchy of the Roman Empire. In contrast to competing visions of the Jesus movement (as seen in noncanonical sources like the Acts of Thecla), the letter of Titus desires a church that is socially acceptable and upwardly mobile.

This overview is important for approaching 2:11–14. Titus’ discussion of God’s grace and salvation occurs between two sets of moral exhortations that the author frames theologically as “sound doctrine” (2:1). Repeating Roman household codes, this doctrine mostly involves telling women and enslaved people “to be submissive” to their husbands and enslavers, respectively (2:3–10). The lectionary passage is immediately followed by a command for everyone to be obedient and “subject to rulers and authorities” and to avoid a long list of vices that were considered immoral by most Romans, including “various passions and pleasures” (likely referring to queerer practices). 

Despite how Titus’ language fits with our incarnational theology, we cannot ignore this rhetorical context. These troubling theological exhortations frame how God’s grace appears. Titus’ understanding of incarnation is inseparable from his hierarchical and socially acceptable vision for the church.

The author makes this connection clear in 2:12: “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” Roman moralists similarly encouraged those final three virtues of moderation, justness, and piety. This makes them characteristic of elite and upwardly mobile behavior in the “present age.” The phrase “worldly passions” (kosmikas epithumias) could also be translated “worldly desires”: Roman imperial morality believed that “real” men moderated their bodily desires (in other words, the virtue “self-control”). This proved their virtuous ability to govern and rule the empire.

The term “worldly passions” carries sexualized and racialized connotations. When moralists (Roman and biblical) speak of “passions” and “desires,” they almost always emphasize sexual behavior. “Improper” or “immoral” passions involve everything that does not emphasize the power and control of Roman men, including most homoerotic behavior and any form of intercourse that appeared to empower women or enslaved people. 

These sexualized passions were racialized because Roman men propagated the idea that “worldly passions” thrived among foreigners: the inhabitants of the nations they would go on to conquer. According to Rome, conquest brought Roman sexual morality to these many nations. (Europeans did the same thing to justify the colonization of Africa, the Americas, and Asia.)

When the author of Titus celebrates the “blessed hope” that the appearance of God’s salvation brings, he gives theological rationale that continues the argument he made in 2:1–11. The appearance of God’s salvation makes moral living more urgent: Jesus Christ appeared and “gave himself” to “redeem us from all iniquity” and cleanse people to become “zealous for good deeds” (see 2:14). For Titus, God’s salvation makes space for moral purity in the present. Therefore, just as they required a church structure that reflected Rome’s sociopolitical hierarchy, the author demands moral living in these Roman terms. 

Cautious incarnation

Awareness of this rhetoric invites us to be reverently suspicious of Titus. We see how salvation theology justifies racialized and sexualized moral hierarchies that justifies the conquest and oppression of different people. This empowers us to name the ways these theologies continue to oppress marginalized people in the church and in the world. It is possible that a few congregations may be hungry for a sermon that digs into and denounces these theological injustices we see in this text, though I suspect that is rare on Christmas Eve!

But this context informs a cautious approach to Titus. It helps us speak responsibly and meaningfully about Jesus’ incarnation for all people—starting with the most marginalized, now and then. How Jesus saves matters. We might reframe a liturgical or homiletical approach to Titus to instead emphasize a Jesus and a salvation that became worldly and passionate. Instead of rejecting the “immorality” that was thrust upon marginalized populations in the Roman Empire (as Titus 2:11–14 does), we could celebrate the appearance of God who made us passionate in the same way they made their Child passionate when taking human form.

This approach remembers the women and enslaved folks whom Titus attempts to silence and keep down. Titus’ argument is rhetorical: he makes it because many second-century Christians disagreed and dissented—and there is ample evidence they did so and continued to do so long after Titus was canonized. If women and enslaved folks demanded leadership roles and freedom from the church, they or others may have resisted the colonizing demands of Roman moral purity. Reverent suspicion toward Titus gives flesh to these other voices and views, placing them alongside Christ as a living incarnation of God’s promises for justice.