Christmas Eve: Nativity of Our Lord

“Sing a new world into being. Sound a bold and hopeful theme. Find a tune for silent yearnings. Lend your voice and dare to dream,” begins a hymn by Mary Louise Bringle.

December 24, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 2:11-14

“Sing a new world into being. Sound a bold and hopeful theme. Find a tune for silent yearnings. Lend your voice and dare to dream,” begins a hymn by Mary Louise Bringle.

The hymn ends with the declaration, “Sing a new world into being: live the promise you believe!” If today’s epistle text were a hymn, it might begin, “Live a new world into being.” The emphasis is clearly and squarely on living into the grace of God that brings salvation.

Why should we as Christians live any differently than anyone else? What is the motivation? This is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading. After several verses that outline relationships in the household (2:2-10), this section provides the basis for such counsel. While modern Christians may dispute the specifics of the “rules” the author outlines for older men, older women, young women, and slaves; the rationale for such regulations is a response to “the grace of God…bringing salvation to all” (2:11).

Rooting specific Christian behaviors, like household management and temperance, in the lofty ideals of “grace” and “salvation” may seem odd to some, but it is an age old practice. Although this practice likely began before the apostle Paul, he is the first New Testament writer to use the gospel as a motivation for behavior. He provided a theological foundation for this pattern of argumentation, and it had its aftereffects. At times, for example, individuals have confused historically-situated “rules” that are subject to change with an ageless rationale for invoking them. In this case, the grace of salvation results in living “lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:12). Many have noted that what is presented here as the content of the Christian life is almost identical with the ideal of Greek ethics. Courage (andreia) is the only one missing (though, in truth, andreia appears nowhere in the New Testament.) Such discussions can seem overly academic. Why does or should it matter that a verse like this coincides with something found in Greek thought? Foremost, because it indicates to us that although we live in a world in need of redemption, it does not mean there is nothing irredeemable already in it.

The relationship between Christianity and culture has been at the center of a debate going back to its inception. There were many then, as there are many now, who rejected any perceived influence of non-Christian culture into our religion and its practices. As Tertullian of Carthage famously quipped, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Similar statements are made by many in our own day. Among African-Americans, for example, there has been an ongoing concern over the celebration of Kwanzaa. This week-long holiday commemorating seven communitarian values embraced across Africa is meant to affirm the goodness of the pre-Christian (or non-Christian) heritage of those of African descent. Yet, precisely because it uplifts something non-Christian, segments of the African-American Christian community have denounced Kwanzaa. By contrast, New Testament scholar, Brad Braxton, commented on the controversy, “[In] some Christian congregations, Kwanzaa and Christmas are now celebrated simultaneously as a way of saying that there is something unique and powerful about African-American Christian heritage. Such people affirm that they are not just Christians, but they are African-American Christians. Such people also affirm that they are not just African-American, but they are African-American Christians.”1  Something similar can be said for most ethnic groups. The blending of the old and the new, the Christian and the non-Christian, affirming the non-Christian by appeal to the Christian, is something that has transpired from the beginning.

The celebration of Christmas reminds us of this gracious act of God. The mystery of the incarnation affirms the innate goodness of God’s creation. It is a divine wager of sorts, an expression of God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity and all creation. And as with any wager, there is an interim period between placing the bet and its payoff. Statements like “in the present age” and “while we wait” point to this period of expectation (2:12, 13). Living between the first coming and the second coming, the gospel challenges Christians to live lives responsive to the gracious act of God. We often forget that “grace” and “gift” are rooted in the same terminology. A gift is a gift because it is given without a guarantee of an appropriate response. It is influential (another use of charis in Greek) rather than coercive.

By contrast, a wage is payment rendered for services performed. Paul presents this idea forcefully in Romans 6:23 where he says, “For the wages [opsōnia] of sin is death, but the free gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Here he picks up on a statement made earlier in 4:4, “Now to one who works, wages [misthos] are not reckoned as a gift [charin] but as something due.” Although the precise terms for wages differ in Greek, the sentiment is singularly focused: what God has done in Christ is not a response to or in expectation of services performed (payment due), but rather a gift that should stimulate an appropriate response.

Consequently, what the Titus passage tells us is that God acted by giving us a gift in Jesus Christ, “bringing salvation to all,” and that the appropriate response to such an act is “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (2:11, 12). Like that magical moment on Christmas morning, a gift elicits not only joy from the recipient, but influences some sort of response as well. In this case, the passage reminds us that we have it in our capacity to respond appropriately by drawing upon and improving what is already in and around us. Our gift back to God is an expression of our distinctive character as individuals located in a particular time and place. Drawing upon the best we have to offer, we live a new world into being.

1Brad Ronnell Braxton, “The Role of Ethnicity in the Social Location of 1 Corinthians 7:17-24,” Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation (ed. Randall C. Bailey; SemeiaSt; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 32.