In the beautiful Polish film Ida, Wanda tells her niece Anna about a woman she used to know: “She was an artistic type, always making things out of bits of cloth or glass. She once made a stained glass window and put it in the barn, to make the cows happy.” For some reason – I suppose it was the cows and the barn – this reminded me of the Christmas story. There is something a bit over the top about Christmas. All those prophecies, all those miracles and wonders, all those singing angels. There’s something extravagant, even superfluous, about the whole thing. It’s so superfluous that two of the evangelists took it for granted that they could tell the whole Gospel of Jesus without so much as mentioning the Christmas story. Do we need Christmas? Yes, I suppose so, in the same way that a barn needs a window.
One of my children asked me why we give gifts to each other at Christmas. It is Jesus’ birthday, after all, so shouldn’t all the gifts go to him? We puzzled over this for a bit. We noticed that gifts are given not only on birthdays but also on weddings, anniversaries, the announcement of a pregnancy, and other occasions when the heart is big with joy. We might also give gifts when someone dies or gets sick or when a friend moves away. We use gifts on such occasions because there’s no other way of adequately expressing what the heart feels. We exchange gifts when an exchange of words would not be enough to say what we really mean. Gifts are a release valve for the human spirit. The special thing about Christmas isn’t just the use of gifts – that happens on all special days – but the profligate scale of gift-giving. On nearly every other occasion, the gifts are received by one individual. But the joy of Christmas is so high and so deep that we can only express what it means by giving gifts in every direction. Even if we could bring our gifts directly to the baby Jesus, our hearts would still require a release valve: the joy would be too much for us. On our way home from visiting the baby in the manger we would find ourselves shaking hands with strangers in the street, passing gifts to one another, emptying our purse into the hands of a beggar and telling him to be of good cheer. Why do we give gifts at Christmas? Not because the baby Jesus needs our gifts but because we do: we need to give something to someone: otherwise our hearts would burst.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I prepare my talk on the atonement for the Los Angeles Theology Conference next month. Atonement is an important idea. It’s about trying to figure out exactly how Jesus saves. Having some clarity about this can help you to talk intelligibly about how the Gospel story relates to the lives of real people here and now. Anselm’s account of the atonement is one of the most powerful pieces of apologetics in Christian history. Anselm translates the whole Gospel story into an idiom of feudal honour. To his contemporaries it must have seemed as fresh and as compelling as if someone today were to explain the significance of Jesus’ death using the language of smart phones and social media. The concept of atonement serves a purpose. But it only goes so far. Explaining the mechanism by which Jesus saves might provide an accessible point of entry into the Gospel story. It might tell you why a barn needs a window. It might even tell you why the window had to be located at that particular spot. But it can’t explain why the window is made of such strange and lovely stained glass. It can’t explain the superfluous.
In a fourth-century sermon on Paul’s language of “abounding grace” (Romans 5:12-21), John Chrysostom describes the need for salvation as one small piece of a bigger picture. The main thing about grace isn’t that it meets your needs but that it totally surpasses them. What Christ brings into the world is much more than anybody needs. It’s stained glass for cows.
“Paul did not say ‘grace’ but ‘abounding grace’. For from that grace we received not only as much as was required for removing that sin, but much more. For surely we were both freed from punishment and we rid ourselves of all evil; we were born again from above; and when ‘the old man’ was buried, we rose again. We were redeemed and sanctified; we were brought into adoption and justification. We became brothers and sisters of the Only Begotten, his joint heirs, and of one body with him. Indeed, we were counted as his flesh and were joined to him as a body to its head. Not only did we receive a medication that would heal the wound inflicted by sin, but also one that would bring us health, beauty, honour, glory, and dignities far surpassing our nature. Each one of these was enough to destroy death. But when all of them run together as one, not even a trace of death is left, nor can even a shadow of it remain to be seen. For Christ paid off much more than we owed – as much more as a limitless ocean compared to a small drop of water.” (Homilies on Romans, Vol. 1, p. 186)
What are you waiting for? Don’t just stand there! Go out and kiss somebody! Throw a party! Make a feast! Sing a Christmas carol! Let the wine flow freely! Give somebody something and receive a gift from someone too! Don’t be shy! Christ is born and the angels are singing. Christ is born and the world is renewed. Christ is born and the sunlight we were longing for has flooded over us, filling our barn (we don’t know why) with colours.