Tim Perry reflects on the hope of the gospel at Christmas
“The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” When I was younger and knew more, I’d make fun of gospel songs with lyrics like these. They diminished the goodness of God’s creation. They longed to escape the world of matter. They were more gnostic than Christian. I’m older now – I know a lot less, and as time passes I wince less and sing louder.
Songs like that remind me of Christianity’s profound otherworldliness.
I need reminding in ways earlier generations didn’t. When I was in parish ministry and assisting at a local funeral home, I spent a lot of time in little Methodist cemeteries that dotted the landscape in my corner of the Upper Ottawa Valley. I never ceased to be struck by the ages engraved on the tombstones.
Until well into the 20th century premature death was commonplace. Young women – usually complications from childbirth. Young men – farming accidents, now preventable disease. And the sheer number of children – stillbirths, pneumonia, scarlet fever, the flu.
Her hope was so strong it found expression in song. This world was not her home.
This was my grandmother’s world. Her mother died of Spanish flu in 1918. Her sister died in childbirth. Though she raised five children to adulthood, she buried two more. And hers was not a uniquely tragic story. This simply was life for the vast majority of working class and rural Canadians in the first half of the 20th century.
And yet the abiding memory of my grandmother for me was her happiness. I’ve never known a happier woman. And a large measure of that happiness, I’m convinced, was grounded in the hope of heaven that she expressed when she sang those old gospel songs.
Even if the theology was not quite right, her longing to "be with Jesus and the loved ones gone before us" was certainly well grounded. Her hope was so strong it found expression in song. This world was not her home. She hoped for a better one.
Two generations later and her world is foreign to me. We live today in a century where more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty to enjoy both improved quality of life and lengthened quantity of life than ever before. (Surely whatever we think of evolutionary biologist Stephen Pinker, this assertion of his is unassailable.) I can gesture to my grandmother’s world. But I don’t live in it.
So why do I sing her songs? If a previous generation was for understandable reasons too ready to "leave this world of sorrow," I need to keep singing their songs because I’m too tempted to want to stay. Those songs insist that whatever pleasures this world may afford, those pleasures are temporary.
As I get older I need reminding this world, though in so many ways better than my grandparents’ world, is still temporary. I should be no more at home in my world than my grandparents were in theirs.
Which brings me to Christmas. The Nativity narrative in the Gospel of Luke is perhaps so familiar we miss its strange otherworldliness. We skip over the way he presents the weighty reality of heaven and its invasion of earth in the Incarnation, the way he brings that other world of hope into the present world of strife.
Notice on the one hand how this Gospel takes place not in the realm of myth and saga but in our world of dictators and democracies, Dairy Queens and dwarf stars, penthouses and panhandlers.
Whatever echoes of ancient pagan heroes we might find in Luke’s telling of the story, Jesus lives in the world of Caesar Augustus, not Odysseus and Achilles. Luke’s story opens when "Herod was king in Judea" (1:5). Jesus is born while "Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:2). The world of Caesar, Herod and Quirinius is the world of Washington, Moscow, Kyiv and Ottawa. It’s our world.
On the other hand, Luke insists, it’s not the only world there is. Caesar’s world is overturned by an invasion from another.
The angel Gabriel steps off the pages of the book of Daniel to confront Zechariah the priest. "Your prayer has been heard!"
Sixth months later the same divine messenger bows before the Blessed Virgin. "Hail Mary! Full of grace! The Lord is with you!"
Another nine months on an anonymous angel – I suspect it’s either Gabriel completing the evangelistic hat trick or Michael leading the angelic army – makes another announcement, this time to shepherds: "I bring you good news of great joy for all the people!"
Perhaps our imaginations have been dulled by too many Christmas pageants with white bathrobes, cardboard wings and tinsel halos to really see Gabriel and the leader of the heavenly host.
Angels are safely relegated, even for otherwise biblical Christians, to that mental junk drawer labelled "We’re not quite sure, so we don’t worry about it." Angels at Christmas give many of us no more pause than devil horns at Halloween. We do well to remember that in all three visitations, the angel’s appearance evoked a first response of fear that had to be dealt with – "Do not be afraid!"
When speaking of the heavenly world, and when talking about messengers come from there to here, Luke is not engaging in metaphor any more than he is in mythmaking. This is not a colourful retelling of a human mediation of a divine message. This was Gabriel come straight from the presence of God (1:19). This was (perhaps) Michael, the commander of the armies of the Lord.
Terror was and is the right and proper response. Luke gives us the invasion of one world by another.
Christians insist the real world is one in which angels appear, a Virgin conceives and a baby is God in the flesh.
Third, consider who gets advance warning – a priest in a rural backwater, a young woman without obvious pedigree, a group of blue-collar shepherds. The truly other world that is home for awe-inspiring angelic beings evidently takes notice of the kinds of people Caesar and our other elites never have.
Indeed, it’s to the usually unnoticed that the angels announce the unseen heavenly world is finally and forever united to ours in God the Son’s assumption of human nature. All the while Herod broods and Quirinius counts and Caesar commands from his hall in Rome, none the wiser.
Two millennia on, with Christian majority communities in shambles and population trends making pretty bleak predictions for the future of Christian faith, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Augustus may not be Caesar anymore, but that world order seems to be as entrenched as ever.
At the climax of The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis has a character declare these words to the villain.
Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it, … even if there isn’t any Narnia.
This wager seems bleak at this point in the novel. All the sensory evidence available to Puddleglum the Marshwiggle and certainly all the political power of the rulers of Underland seem to indicate they rule everything.
And yet, on the fringes of his imagination is the conviction there’s more to life than the bleakness Underland offers – a memory and a hope of a place more real and more beautiful than what’s currently on offer.
Is Canadian evangelicalism – all Canadian Christianity – at a Puddleglum sort of moment? To be sure, today’s Canada is not Puddleglum’s bleak and desolate Underland. Most readers of Faith Today live lives that would be the envy of previous Canadian generations and many current ones across the globe.
Perhaps our imaginations have been dulled by too many Christmas pageants with white bathrobes, cardboard wings and tinsel halos.
Nevertheless, the pressure to conform our imaginations to what St. Paul called "the pattern of this world" is growing even as our own imaginative purchase on the realities of faith weakens.
Certainly the undeniable advances and comforts this world has provided are parts of its power. It can seem, not only to our enemies but also to our friends and even ourselves, that we are the ones gripped by a delusion.
In such a time Christmas, as the Feast of the Incarnation, celebrates the sheer otherworldliness of the gospel and the hope it brings.
For at Christmas Christians insist the real world is one in which angels appear, a Virgin conceives and a baby is God in the flesh. It is perhaps the best time to remember and own and announce, whether in the words of the old gospel song or in another more contemporary idiom, the fact believers won’t be at home until the final unveiling of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:19).
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door. They beckon you too – if you have eyes to see.
Tim Perry is professor of theology and church ministries at Providence Theological Seminary. He lives in Grunthal, Man. Photo of hands: Shutterstock.com. Photo of sky by Klemen Vrankar.
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- In what ways do you resonate with Tim Perry’s statement, "I’m older now, I know a lot less"?
- This is a politically tumultuous time in the world, and a very dangerous time, depending on where you live. What does the hope of Christmas offer to us all in such times? How can we be peacemakers and reconcilers in our own communities?
- Tim Perry uses the word otherworldliness throughout this piece. How does that word resonate with you as you consider Christmas and all its implications?