The Morality of Christmas

You might be thinking that it’s too early to hear about Christmas – Thanksgiving is yet a couple of weeks away. However, for the Orthodox, the Nativity Fast began on November 15. It is already time to give our thoughts to Christmas – our Winter Pascha. This article (a reprint) reflects on a theme that has been present in my thoughts for several years. I pray it will be of use as you re-order your earthly cares.

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Morality is tricky business in what is an extremely moral society. I pray my readers to be patient with me as I explain what I think is the problem. First, I will note that morality is all that is left when the most fundamental grounds of a culture have been destroyed. We indeed live in just such a time, hence the rise of a vehemence in the moral life. Second, I will suggest that what we as Christians must strive for within ourselves is less and less of a moral grounding in our lives and a greater grounding in that which is – all of which requires some explaining.

Two men building a fence along the edge of a cliff will not have an argument about which side to stand on as they do their work. Gravity presents its own argument and its word is final. Indeed, it is not an argument – it is real. This is the nature of Christian moral claims. But our modern world has altered this understanding.

Today, we use the term “moral” to describe behaviors that adhere to some particular standard or guide. As such, everybody is “moral” and lives according to some form of morality: people do not behave in a random manner. Everyone has thoughts and opinions about their own behavior and the behavior of others (no matter how much they may say otherwise). Those thoughts and opinions need not be based in anything other than opinions and feelings – indeed, most morality in our modern world has no other basis. And this is the point.

The Christian understanding of morality is not arbitrary in the least. There is nothing in the whole of the faith’s teaching whose ground is simply “God said so.” Nothing within the Christian moral life is arbitrary. What God commands is our good and He directs us according to the goodness of our existence and the creation in which we live.

If anyone asks the reason for any action within the Christian life, a good answer, rooted in our own well-being and the well-being of others should be forthcoming. The commandments of Christ do not simply tell us what we should do, but in their telling, reveal the very nature of reality to us.

The so-called breakdown of morality in the modern world is not a moral problem. What has broken down is not morality, but any agreed notion about the nature of the world. Our perceptions of reality itself have shattered into disparate fragments. There is a strange aching for morality, a tormented desire for goodness in some form or guise. But as the ground of reality has shattered, so has the possibility of moral conversation. We shout in hopes of being heard.

When we lose a common understanding of reality itself, all that is left is bald assertion. The morality of the modern world is simply power. It is, in one form or another, the use of violence (or its threat) that argues. Certain positions and behaviors are extolled while others are not only condemned but increasingly demonized. In the baseless morality of modernity, those with whom we disagree are not simply wrong: they are thought to be evil. This is the only conclusion that can be reached when what is right is established solely through choice. If what is good is only good because I choose it, then choosing otherwise must be seen as evil and named as such.

Classical Christianity, on the other hand, need demonize no one. No human being can ever be the “enemy” (Eph. 6:12). What is right and what is true is not a matter of choice – it is established by reality itself. In our modern setting, many (even most) will argue with the nature and character of reality. Some will even assert that reality is nothing more than a social construct. However, if something is true because it is real, then it ultimately makes its own argument. You don’t have to defend gravity.

In the confusion of our present times, however, it is easy to overlook the true morality that God and creation uphold. An absolutely essential element of that reality is expressed in the mystery of Christmas. God becomes a man and is birthed into our world. This reveals human beings as bearers of the image of God and dictates the very reason for the manner we are commanded to treat others. More than this, the Incarnation of Christ reveals the reality of life-as-communion (indeed, the whole work of Christ makes this known). It tells us that when we harm another, we not only harm the image of God, but we, in fact, do harm to our own selves.

St. Paul appeals to this understanding when he speaks about marriage:

So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. (Eph 5:28-30)

This same reality is revealed in Christ’s statement: “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). It is very much worth pondering that Christ does not say that what we do to others is “as if” we had done it to Him. No. He reveals the utter Divine solidarity of the Incarnation. He is the other – each of them, everywhere and always. This reality undergirds the whole of His “ethical” teaching. To love as Christ loves begins with recognizing Him in the fullness of the Incarnation.

Tragically, modern versions of morality, rooted in the will (elevating free choice to the primary position within all things), are always moving towards violence. There is nothing to which one can point other than “my choice,” to justify anything. And my choice only has power when I am willing to exercise the violence required to give it power. The more our culture moves towards the morality of the will, the more violent and coercive it will become.

The Incarnation of Christ is without violence (on the part of God). There is no coercion. From the beginning, Mary is asked and yields herself to be the mother of the Savior with joy. All that is endured, up to and including the Cross are freely accepted and not coerced. But the coming of Christ is not strange for creation – it does not even offer the violence required of accommodation. St. John says of Christ, “He came to His own people.” The world was created through Christ, the Logos, and bears His image within all things. Far from doing violence, His coming reveals things to be what they truly are. All things find their true home in Him.

This is the morality of Christmas – all things becoming what they truly are.  This is peace on earth and good will towards all of mankind.

 

15 comments:

  1. Thank you , Father Stephen,
    I always look forward to your blogs. This morning after reading and being nourished by this one I also read your blog of November 27, 2017.
    Gratefully,
    Sharon

  2. I have observed that as the commonly held social understanding break down, the tendency for everything to become a matter of “law” increases. Even politics becomes a precursor to the “law” deciding. It is what happened principally in the west when the ecclesiology of the western church broke down the legalistic approach became more and more common giving rise to Calvinism, PSA, Dispensationalism and all manner of other legalistic soteriologies.
    It has come, finally, to the Orthodox Church methinks.

    Of course, law as a false front for a well ordered society does not work either and the “power” is soon unmasked as the sword of the state used to destroy and control rather than it’s righteous use in maintaining God’s order and protecting.
    The law turns into a way to punish the righteous and the weak. That is modern morality to me

  3. While driving on the straight, flat, roads of the Gila wilderness in New Mexico I got pulled over for speeding. I thought that the topography and the fact that I was the only one out there permitted to drive faster than 55 mph; the state of NM thought otherwise. So, I was particularly cautious about my speed the rest of the day. Later, as I was driving through the Gila mountains, I noticed that there were not any cops, and soon realized that there’s no need – because the mountain is the “cop,” or at least the precipitous drop is the cop. I was mad earlier that I couldn’t drive as fast as I wanted – now, I had my wish. I could drive as fast as I wanted. Of course the mountain is much more severe – there’s no bargaining with gravity, no pleading. But you can live in harmony with the mountain in a way that you can’t with the state, which has to enforce it’s policies through violence. That was a vivid illustration for me of the difference between a juridical morality and an ontological morality.

  4. Father or Michael,
    What would a state without some kind of coercion look like? We certainly have no theocracy, though violence was used in those. Utopias have failed because they were, utopian. Kings and warlords throughout history have used force/violence. We cannot as a state be ruled by love. If I remember my college days correctly, I think Reinhold Niebuhr said a modern state can only aim at justice. Now without a shared consensus of values even justice is on very shaky ground. Thinking aloud….

  5. Dean,
    I understand the point – and it’s a pattern of reasoning that draws us deeper and deeper into violence. It is true that we cannot be “ruled” by love – because love doesn’t rule in a violent manner. The outcome of love is the Cross. We want the Cross to give us the same expected outcomes as violence – but it doesn’t and it won’t.

    Generally, what we have through the centuries is the same-old-same-old. Christianity becomes the “religion” of the state, or just a privatized belief system of the individual. I often think that Christians in America aren’t persecuted because we’re no particular threat. If all the Christians disappeared tomorrow – how would the nation be different? That’s a tragic admission. Many contemporary Christians complain that they are being persecuted – largely because others fear our votes. They are afraid that we will do to them what they want to do to us. We differ only in our “values.”

    But, the Christian faith is not a value system. It is, properly, a family/union of dead people. And because we have died in Christ, our lives are utterly different.

    How should dead people live in this society? What does that look like? What does it mean if our only life is the resurrection of Christ?

    I think the state’s going to be the state no matter what. Sometimes nice, and sometimes not so much. What I believe is that modernity is teaching us to believe that we are all “managers” and we take responsibility for violence. In a monarchy, a war was the King’s war. In a democracy – it’s everybody’s war. All wars are “total war” – there can be no other kind.

    I have no idea of what a Christian state would look like. And, apart from about 2 verses in the entire New Testament, both of which have been beaten to death and made to mean things they do not, there’s not so much as a hint that God has much of an idea of what a Christian state would look like either.

  6. The state is given the sword by God. In this world, such promise of violence is a given. That is not the issue. It is whether a law is founded on and an expression of a Godly order or either a substitution for or usurption of a Godly order. When men forget God and serve only ourselves, the law is a substitution. When we rebel against God as many are doing these days, the law is a usurption of the Godly order. That is Nihilism in which the Will to Power is the only good.

    John Adams said shortly after the ratification that the government created by the Constitution is for a Christian people and was wholly unsuitable for any other.
    He said that because as a Christian people we are led to have the law of God’s order written on our hearts and can therefore be free and responsible both. Adams saw that no other people are able to do that and even for us it is a struggle.

    Without having the law in our hearts, chaos, bureaucracy and tryanny ensue and external, artificial and capricious “order” is applied or there is a reversion to a tribal way.

  7. A lot of the modern state exists to keep bourgeois folks from getting their hands dirty with damaged people we might have to treat like neighbors.

  8. One of the things that confuses me the most about Christianity is how we all fail to live it. Thankfully, we are given saints to help us see that it is not utterly impossible to do so with the help of God’s grace. Still, it seems that there are so many people that claim sincere adherence to Christianity but are unable to agree about what that means.

    Fr. Stephen, I like your imagery of the two people building the fence on the edge of the cliff. Reality, in terms of which side of the fence to stand on, is clear and not up for debate. However, seldom do we find anything else upon which all of us can unequivocally agree is reality. Even among people who profess to be Christians, not all agree that God became Man. Such a broken and mixed up bunch we are!

    How do we not participate in this mess and truly live as our Savior lived?

    The only solution I can think of is profound humility. And I’m not very good at that. 😉

  9. I have observed that as the commonly held social understanding break down, the tendency for everything to become a matter of “law” increases.

    Michael, it is my thought that people will worship something. When they turn away from God, they must find something else to worship. Having no security in life outside of the whims of the State, many people worship the idea of justice–the Law–as they have nothing else to which to cling. In a related thought, it always amuses me that in every post apocalyptic show, God is always seen as the One who failed when the nations of the world were destroyed. It is never the State, or Society, that failed. Indeed, the people in all those shows always set about rebuilding exactly what destroyed the world the first time!

    Jordan, a wonderful story and observation. Many thanks for that!

    Dean, I think the only “state without some kind of coercion” is the throne in heaven. No earthly government will ever approach it but we can live within it, regardless of the states here, by God’s grace.

    Side note: I must admit, please forgive me, that I greatly enjoy telling some people that there is no democracy in heaven, only a throne, and that we have no rights before it. I sometimes have to bite my lip as the implications of that statement play out in their facial expressions. Pray for me.

  10. The only solution I can think of is profound humility. And I’m not very good at that.

    Last note: Mary Benton, you are spot-on here!

  11. Father Stephen,
    I’d like to take a stab at the questions you pose!

    How should dead people live in this society?
    In peace. Like the bodies in the tombs who didn’t react to the monk who flattered and then insulted them. In peace, without the unrest (political, social, global) ‘ruining your day’. In peace, with those who we interact with, friends and strangers.

    What does that look like?
    What does joyful-sorrow look like? You can see it in the eye. It is neither overly sentimental nor raucous, but…peaceful. It magnifies.

    What does it mean if our only life is the resurrection of Christ?
    It means living as we were made to live, guided by grace, in His commandments, which indicates our love: to forgive, to cover the sins of others, to admonish privately, to be exceedingly charitable, to avoid objectifying others and creation as another ‘commodity’, to pray often, to be thankful for everything…
    surely there’s more.

    We live in a crazy world no doubt, but I try to be careful how often I express this. I remember you saying one time, Father, something to the effect that we are beaten down enough where it is easy to develop a low view of humanity. This can adversely effect a person already in despair and depression. It is good to express as well, that many of us at least have the desire to live as Christ would have us, and that we do try. That we fail goes without saying. Though some think it an important preface. It can reflect the joy of forgiveness and the sorrow for sin.

    We picture in our mind the type of person we’d like to be. Even when we put on a false front, I think the least we can say it is a playing out the desire to be the type of person we falsely present. Yeah, it’s a crazy route to take, but many do.

    At best, we have Christ, Mary, and the saints to imitate. We pray to them for their intercession for the many struggles we have. This is the bulk of the faithful. No perfection here. Like sons and daughters, we just want to be like our Father. Who gave His Son, for the life of the world.

    It’s a good season, Christmas.

  12. “The commandments of Christ do not simply tell us what we should do, but in their telling, reveal the very nature of reality to us.”
    Wonderful Father, and yes, i’ll try and use it to re-order my earthly cares.

  13. “If all the Christians disappeared tomorrow, what would be different?”

    You sound a bit like a discouraged “George Bailey” in this question, Father.

    I can picture quite a few ways my local community would be very different were it not for local Christians. There is an “adult” business (now gone) that would still be operating next to a local preschool and down the street from my daughter’s high school. There is a local community center built over three decades ago by local Christians with full-time staff and hoards of volunteers drawn mainly from local churches helping an underprivileged neighborhood nearby formed when some Chicago project housing was dismantled. My husband’s congregation has been engaging in similar ministries to a nearby impoverished school district along a major corridor in the suburbs and have just launched a campaign to build a community center for at-risk youth in that area.

    Local food pantries and ministries to the homeless here depend heavily on local churches and their members, and my parish is one of those who share in these, too.

    We are entering the season where a a couple of my favorite films illustrating this important spiritual reality are shown, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Grinch That Stole Christmas”. Both send a deep and abiding gospel message, much like that other classic favorite, “A Christmas Carol.” Even when not suffering real persecution (and even perhaps because we are not being persecuted and, therefore, still have resources at our disposal), genuine believers do make a real difference wherever they live. It’s easy to get discouraged by pop Christianity, but it’s good not to forget the Lord still gets through to many, and the world continues to hold together because of the communion He establishes through willing hearts.

  14. An Absolutely profound and wonderful post! Thank you Fr Stephen.

    “…all of which requires some explaining.” This is so hard when we only want information. I always struggle to share these profound things with people, and even believe them sometimes, but i think the penny has dropped with your statement about choice….I cant choose the “real” to be real. Awesome!!

    “What is right and what is true is not a matter of choice – it is established by reality itself……… However, if something is true because it is real, then it ultimately makes its own argument. You don’t have to defend gravity.”

    This is my favorite part that really blessed me:
    “It is very much worth pondering that Christ does not say that what we do to others is “as if” we had done it to Him. No. He reveals the utter Divine solidarity of the Incarnation. He is the other – each of them, everywhere and always. This reality undergirds the whole of His “ethical” teaching. To love as Christ loves begins with recognizing Him in the fullness of the Incarnation……Far from doing violence, His coming reveals things to be what they truly are. All things find their true home in Him.”

    This has given me allot to consider and pray about. To know myself.

    Create me a clean heart O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me!

    Bless
    JP

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