Translating the theology of Incarnation into prayer and a way of life

At the religious center of the Christmas festival is an idea—that the eternal God comes to live among us embodied in the life of a human being just like us. That person, of course, is Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph.

Classic Christian faith affirms that the Incarnation, this indwelling of God in human flesh, extends beyond the unique and definitive form that we celebrate in the Christmas festival. All who become members of the community inspired by Jesus’ life receive the same Spirit that fully enlivened the Bethlehem baby who became the man of Nazareth. We learn to live the Incarnation and through our efforts the Spirit of the eternal God is brought into the life of the world.

This understanding of the theological heart of Christmas was renewed in my mind at the communion table on Sunday, the day after Christmas this year. The setting was University Christian Church in Seattle. This congregation follows a liturgical discipline in which leaders of the congregation choose the language of the devotions and prayers.

The words spoken at the table on this Sunday were seriously theological even though they use a vocabulary drawn from ordinary life experience rather than the technical language often used at the communion tables.

The first set of words were described as “Invitation to Communion” and were spoken responsively by leader and congregants. (They come from The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman.) “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” was offered by the elder for the day. The congregation sang the Lord’s Prayer (the well-known setting by Malotte), and the pastor spoke the Words of Institution while breaking the bread, following Jesus’ example. The communion trays with unfermented grape juice and gluten-free bread were passed among congregants.

This Christmas celebration of the church’s distinctive meal was devotionally satisfying and theologically appropriate—a liturgy well suited to the season and setting.

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry;

To release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brother, to make music in the heart.

Dear God, we gather around your table this day after Christmas, this day when our waiting and preparing and celebrating is nearly done, when we begin to clean up and put away the special things.

We gather for this most ordinary meal, bread and juice, reminded again that the most ordinary can be transformed by your grace into the most holy.

We thank you now for this meal, and for the One it embodies: our Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World.

Give us the faith and courage of Mary and Joseph, two ordinary people who welcomed the Christ Child into their lives, who risked social ostracism and political persecution while they went about the ordinary tasks of raising a child up into a man.

As we share this meal, so empower us to go about the ordinary tasks of welcoming Jesus, of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, doing justice, and proclaiming that the Prince of Peace lives. Amen

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2 Responses to Translating the theology of Incarnation into prayer and a way of life

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Thanks for this post Keith. You will be interested to know that Howard Thurman’s powerful The Work of Christmas — a call for the continued Incarnation of God with Us, in the living of our days, after we have completed our personal and faith community Celebration of Christmas — was included as part of Steven Anderson’s communion prayer in the Celebration of Communion yesterday at Portland First Christian.

    After the service, I expressed appreciation for his communion prayer of thanksgiving & in particular his inclusion of Thurman’s challenging The Work of Christmas. He pick it up from the email Christmas Greeting to members of DJAN (Disciples Justice Action Network) which I also received.

    But my exposure to Howard Thurman goes back many years. A 17th birthday present from my parents was a copy of Thurman’s just published Meditations of The Heart (1953, Harper & Brothers), and it has been a ‘good friend’ & devotional resource (along with several other books/writings by Thurman) over the years.

    I was revisiting The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan (2007, HarperOne) a couple weeks ago in some reflection during Advent. When Borg/Crossan affirm that Advent and Christmas are about a new world, about an eschatology of divine transformation of us as individuals and of our earth — and that we are called into a “participatory eschatology” of transformation of our lives, our communities, our world — I immediately thought of Thurman’s classic The Work of Christmas.

    When Borg & Crossan say: “…both the eschatology of (personal) rebirth and the eschatology of a new world, require our participation. God will not change us as individuals without our participation, *and* God will not change the world without our participation” (page 242, The First Christmas) — they are offering, it seems to me, a paraphrase of Thurman’s The Work of Christmas written many years earlier.

    May our prayer be this Christmastide, Epiphany *and* beyond — that the rebirth of God with Us in the warmth of a baby, interface with and nurture our life journey as we continue The Work of Christmas.

  2. Thanks, Rod, for your notes about your history with Howard Thurman’s writings. I suspect that the people who prepared worship in the Seattle church I attended found the Thurman quotation from the same source that was used in Portland. This makes me wonder how many other churches across the nation used this same set of words as material in their Sunday after Christmas worship.

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