Christmas is about suffering

When St. Paul was nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage and sat in a Roman prison awaiting word on his fate, he wrote one last letter to a young man whom he had mentored and given authority over the church in Ephesus.

The mother of our Lord, Mary, had only recently ended her own earthly journey in this very city. It would seem that Timothy, St. Paul’s understudy, would have known her well and honored her.

St. Paul was about to die and he knew it. So he wrote to Timothy and it is one of the most intimate epistles in the Bible and from the ancient world.

Here is some of what he said:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God,

who has saved us and called us with a holy calling,

not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,

but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed,

for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

Flowing through all these words is the theme of the first verse I quoted: fear leads to an unsound mind. And nothing leads to more fear and therefore unsoundness of mind than the fear of death and its corrollary, the fear of suffering.

I have a hard time believing St. Paul enjoyed suffering. That masochistic mindset is itself an over-reaction to the fear of suffering and death and arises from an infirm mind. But he was certainly no stranger to suffering.

Read I and II Corinthians where he describes his sleepless nights, his hunger, his scourgings, and even his anxieties.

If he had enjoyed all this suffering, it would not have been suffering.

But he endured it – and he endured it with a spirit “of power of love and of a sound mind.” 

How can this be? Verse 12 begins with the words, “For this reason I also suffer these things, nevertheless I am not ashamed.” So maybe we should use the cue “For this reason” and find out what reason he is talking about.

The previous verse tell us that he was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. So perhaps that is why he suffers without shame. It’s his job.

Only, verse 11 is not a complete thought. It begins with the prepositional phrase “To which,” and the second word in that phrase is a pronoun.

As you well know,a pronoun stands in for a noun, so if we are going to understand St. Paul’s strength, we are going to have to go back further and see what the “To which” is to-whiching.

End of verse 10: The gospel.

He was appointed an apostle of the gospel. So what’s the gospel.

Of course, everybody knows the answer to that, so at this point we can stop our exegesis and practice some eisegesis (we can switch from drawing meaning out of the text to reading meaning into it).

But wait. I’m not comfortable doing that, so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue to reverse engineer this passage and see what led Paul to mention the gospel.

The previous clause says, “who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Now we’re getting to it!

Now we have something that we’ll have to think about for a long, long time before we can pretend to understand it. It’s a phrase that challenges some of our expectations and assumptions.

Here is St. Paul, in prison, suffering, even dying day by day, having been betrayed and forsaken even by friends, having watched Stephen lose his life (i.e. experience death) and also having known many, many Christians who died, some of whom, I would presume, he himself arrested. Yet here he says “who has abolished death.”

Does he mean anything by this?

Obviously he does, but he doesn’t explain it here. He expects Timothy either to know what he means or to take the trouble to think about it.

Then he goes on to say that whoever abolished death also “brought life and immortality to light.” Now, if he brought life to light, the implication is that previously it was hidden in darkness. Prior to this “who,” people didn’t actually know what life and immortality were. Now, through the gospel, this “who” has brought them to light – has made them, pardon the awkward word, perceivable.

Maybe that gives us a clue about what abolishing death involved. Maybe death was in the dark too. In other words, maybe before “who” came, people didn’t understand either death or life.

Read the Iliad and the Odyssey and you sure get that impression. Achilles was driven by the quest for glory, honor, and immortality. 

But he pursued them like a blind squirrel after a nut. He had power, of a sort, but he lacked love and he certainly did not have a sound mind. I would argue that he was driven by a spirit of fear.

Not Paul. Notice, there is no unease in his letter. There is no hyperness or over-reaction. He doesn’t just say positive things to himself to keep his spirits up. He knows whom he has believed!

And whom he has believed he does not hide from us. The previous clause says this:

But has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ

Our Savior, Jesus Christ. I’d be surprised if you’re surprised here, but don’t let the identification slide past you because it was so obvious. Our savior, Jesus Christ is the one who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.

That’s not really something the importance of which you can minimize.

Many years ago I wrote some truly horrible poems. About 30 or 40 of them. I showed them a few years later to a college professor friend of mine who encouraged me to focus on the sciences.

What came out of our tear stained brawl was that I hadn’t said anything new in my poems. The poems were an exercise in self-indulgence or maybe a little experiment to see if I could use the form, but they didn’t merit being read by anybody else.

 I hadn’t shed any light on the things I was writing about.

A worthy poem is one that reveals truth about something, leads us to better perceive some reality. A good poem will enable us to perceive something good. A great poem will enlighten us to see something great.

The greatest poems will enable us to see the greatest things – the hardest things to see.

The greatest of all poems is “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ” because it brought to light the greatest of all things: life and immortality.

To grasp what this implies, you need to read back one more verse:

Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed…

Not only did Christ Jesus bring life and immortality to light, but he also, by appearing, revealed God’s “purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus.”

The magic words are “in Christ Jesus.” To St. Paul everything is in Christ Jesus. Nothing outside of Christ Jesus is worth having, but then all things are in Him and all things have been given to those in Him. Especially life and immortality.

Christ is, after all, the resurrection and the life.

But He’s going to change the way you think about life and immortality – and death. Because what Paul is saying implies that we have been thinking about them all wrong until Christ came.

I have to ask: if you are a Christian, do you think differently about life and death than you would if you were not a Christian?

If you are not a Christian, do you feel like you have any comprehension of what life and immortality are?

This is a Christmas post, you see.

A real Christmas post. Kitschless. No sentimentality.

When Jesus lay in the womb of His blessed mother, she became the burning bush that was not consumed. God inhabited her womb. That was how life came to us.

She gave birth to Him in a cave and laid Him in a manger. It was unpleasant, cold at night, shameful.

She suffered so much that Simeon told her that a sword would pierce through her soul.

But she had no spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind.

Christmas has become our national holiday because we can avoid the blood of Easter. It’s sentimentalized because a bloodless baby and a very clean mother are easy to keep out of your heart. kitsch dominates because too few dare raise it even to the level of Camp.

While I have to stop, I have much more to say about this: Christmas is what it is because the American Christian wants his religion without pain.

I can relate to that.

Thanks for reading such a long post. Time to wake up.

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2 Responses

  1. Yikes.

    The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by violence, which is why the devil always wants to undercut our will.

  2. My husband, a Lutheran pastor, once preached a Christmas Eve sermon in which his hook was to compare the swaddling cloths to the linens Jesus was wrapped in after he died. From there he went on with Jesus was born to die for us, etc. The head elder chewed him out for mentioning “death” so much in his Christmas Eve sermon.

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