This Christmas exhortation is written by St. Isaac the Syrian, Bishop of Nineveh, dating from the 6th century. His writing here encapsulates the hope of the Nativity and the actions that flow from it. St. Isaac invites us to confront more than hypocrisy. His encouragement is to live in a manner consistent with how God has chosen to come among us.
Charles Wesley’s Nativity Hymns are well known at Advent and Christmas. One hymn in particular catches my heart in a new way when I reflect on St. Isaac’s exhortation. “O Astonishing Grace” (Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, 1745) is a Wesley hymn not many know. Here are the five stanzas:
Much has been written about the connection between Wesleyan theology and Orthodox theology (like that captured here in St. Isaac and Charles Wesley.) Suffice to say that incarnation, is the first and most essential act of God’s love in Jesus Christ. While the cross and resurrection occupy centrality, neither has meaning outside the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. God “being with” us is the essence of our Nativity celebration and is also our imperative, as Wesley said, “By faith let us rise, to His Image ascend.”
Several years ago, I read a work by Samuel Wells entitled The Nazareth Manifesto. Wells describes the power of “being with” people. Rather than simply “working for”, “working with”, and “being for” people, BEING WITH invites us to consider the implications of Christmas (God with us) as an expression of joining with others as God has joined with us.
This truth resonates deeply within me. Not pastoring a local church has forced me to consider how I embody this truth in humbling ways that I did not fully consider before. Being “with” is a commitment that reveals my own shortcomings as a follower of Jesus while also affirming my call to serve the same Jesus amidst today’s challenges. Allow me to share some of what I am holding in Christmas of 2021.
God’s coming among us is an act of emptying. The Apostle Paul describes this in Philippians 2:5-11. Wesley states above, “what a wonder of wonders that God is a child!” Being empty is an internal choice we must each make before we chose to be with others. It is a surrendering of title, office, power, privilege, and even rights for the sake of those we seek to come alongside. Pandemic and polarity have revealed the absolute arrogance, swagger, and imperial self-awareness among us and in us. What will we let go of so that we may each embody grace to this hurting world?
God’s coming among us is an act of reconciliation. St. Isaac says, “This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers; Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.” Our choice to engage in community and shared relationships is about living a gospel of incarnation. Reconciliation is not just about conflict being resolved. It is about the beauty of interconnectedness and shared life. Samuel Wells states, “There is no goal beyond restored relationship: reconciliation is the gospel.” (30) In the church and outside the church, we have chosen sides, created parties, rallied followers, and aligned selfish sympathy. How will we lift others up out of our shared need for one another?
God’s coming among us is an act of creation. Wesley states in the final verse above, “Apprehended of God, let us God apprehend.” In similar fashion, St. Isaac closes with, “Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity, in order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.” There is a very deep sense that making the choice to “be with” others will birth something new. So often we speak of innovation as a tool. This understanding may not recognize how innovation is born in relationship together. Wells states, “Creation is to bring about with. With means creation is God’s decision never to be except to be with us.” (252) Our continued choices of isolation and alienation foster the mundane and routine. How do we expect anything “new” to emerge if we are not rubbing shoulders with others made in the image of God?
Christmas, or rather Nativity, is a call to be with each other in the same way God has come to be with us. Wells describes this as, “kindness, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of fallibility, and mystery.” (255) When I hear these words, I hear familiar themes surrounding the birth of Christ. This year, more than ever, the followers of Jesus need to make a deep commitment to “be with” one another and the world in which we live. Choose to be empty. Choose reconciliation. Choose creation. God has already made God’s own choice. The remaining question is if we will do the same.