Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

Get close. Look into the manger. What do you see there?

December 24, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

Get close. Look into the manger. What do you see there?

A baby? Of course. A savior? Yes. What else? An epiphany.

That’s what the Letter to Titus sees–on that night in Bethlehem and all throughout Jesus’ life. The author of the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) is fond of speaking about epiphanies. Forms of the word appear twice in this brief passage: in verse 11 (epiphaino, translated as “appeared” in the NRSV) and in verse 13 (epiphaneia, translated as “manifestation”). In the reading for Christmas Day, another epiphaino shows up in Titus 3:4 (again, “appeared”).

Epiphany: You Don’t Have to Wait for January 6
The evocative potential of “epiphany” language has been eroded by American culture’s careless use of it to describe rushes of cognitive understanding and creativity. (“I had no idea what to get Mom for Christmas, then I had a sudden epiphany while walking through the mall!”) Ancient Greek speakers were accustomed to hearing about epiphanies as theological phenomena: these were manifestations of deities–in person or through representatives–through physical appearances, deeds, or oracles. The terminology implies a breakthrough, not of a mental insight, but of the Divine. An epiphany means a rupture in the divide between us and God.

This means the author of Titus isn’t messing around when he uses the word. The struggles of life leave us knowing well that most days we can hope for little more than a murky glimpse of God through the fog of uncertainty–“in a mirror, dimly,” to borrow Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 13:12. But speaking of an “epiphany” means something far beyond business as usual. It implies an arresting clarity of vision, a privileged moment in which God floods the obscurity wrought by human limitations with a bright light. God appears. God acts. God speaks.

Take this talk of Jesus as an epiphany and apply it to Christmas. What does the Letter to Titus have to say on Christmas Eve?

The Gospel stories that describe Jesus’ birth speak of it as ordinary and natural. (Even if the manner of his conception poses altogether different questions.) Such a birth makes us ask: what kind of epiphany is going on with the arrival of Jesus Christ? The canonical Gospels do not offer us the sort of bells-and-whistles epiphany imagined by, for example, The Protevangelium of James, a second-century piece of Christian apocrypha. That book describes Mary giving birth in a cave, while a blinding light within the cave prevents Joseph and a midwife from looking in until Jesus has fully emerged from his mother. I admit, this aspect of the story may have more to do with Mary’s modesty and the preservation of her virginal purity than does about commenting on Jesus’ divinity. But notice the message it sends about the birth: Keep away! Holy things are at work here! Mere mortals have only limited access!

By contrast, if we look at Matthew, Luke, and this year’s iteration of the children’s Christmas Eve pageant in light of Titus and the language it brings to the table, then we can say that epiphanies don’t always require special effects to make them genuine. God is capable of breaking through with clarity through more ordinary, even inviting ways. Jesus is a baby, born like most other babies. The biblical story does not restrict our access. You can look at him, touch him, and hold him. Shepherds are invited; magi, too. You don’t need a blinding light to know that God is present in the manger; the rest of the gospel message will show you that.

Living between Two Epiphanies
So, what exactly is it that is made so clear in the Christmas epiphany, seen in a mother holding a newborn child? The Letter to Titus says the grace of God is manifested in Jesus Christ (verse 11). Nothing less than God’s gift of salvation shows up, clearly, in him. Reading on in verse 11, we learn that this grace brings salvation to all people. Yes, you read that right: all people.

Soon this passage from Titus turns to mention another epiphany, too–one more moment of clarity. This is the coming manifestation of Jesus, our God and Savior, in glory (verse 13).

Christmas reminds us of where we reside in history: between two epiphanies, between two tangible manifestations of God’s own Self. We live between the clear demonstration of God’s grace (embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene) and the clear demonstration of God’s glory, for which we wait as a “blessed hope” (verse 13) yet to come.

These truths are as beautiful to ponder as they are foundational to Christian faith. The Christmas Eve setting further encourages Christians to reflect on God’s gracious gifts in the past and God’s glorious promises for the future. But the Letter to Titus won’t let us get away with only happy thoughts.

Notice verse 12. The Letter speaks about epiphanies past and present precisely so that they might prod us to live a certain way “in the present age.” The Letter’s grand theological assertions are designed to call readers into action, into living lives that embody the gospel in ways appropriate for the contexts in which believers find themselves. The author of Titus knows that our “good deeds” (verse 14) are not the sum of the gospel; holy living becomes possible through the salvation that God provides. God is the one who purifies (verse 14). Yet, this does not make holy living an optional thing for those who have seen the light.

Living in Light of Christmas
Preachers who take this biblical text seriously will not let verse 12 fall by the wayside, not even on Christmas Eve, when congregations are eager to get back to stuffing their stockings. The summons to a “godly” way of living is a centerpiece of Titus (and the other Pastoral Epistles), like it or not. The wider context of this passage is about exhortation–exhortation to a life of loyalty to God. Do not confuse the Letter’s call to virtuous living as simply an appeal for good behavior. Rather, this part of the canon commends a life of loyalty to God’s purposes because such a life visibly demonstrates God’s intention to save all.

We might therefore say that such a life is capable, God willing, of manifesting the character of God and the nature of the salvation that God accomplishes. (Fostering compassion for others and commitments to service seems a good place to begin, as we consider the shape of godly living.) The Letter to Titus fixes our vision on the big epiphanies, past and future, so that we might look for other ones in the outworking of God’s grace through our lives right now. Maybe these day-to-day glimpses of salvation and godliness expressed in the lives of believers are lesser epiphanies, but put them together and they can generate a pretty bright light.