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

December 27, 2010

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