by Andrew Stobart.
‘After all we’ve been through this year, we deserve our Christmas!’ The lady on the news was from a town not too far away; the strength of her feeling is echoed by many and is reflected in the efforts being taken to relax lockdown restrictions in time for the festivities. This is the Christmas that we need; or, as she put it, that we deserve.
The trouble is – for her, and for us – Christmas is precisely not what we deserve. Our economies and social calendars – even in the church – might have become so reliant on this annual celebration that we find it hard, twenty centuries later, to grasp what was straightforwardly obvious to the favoured few who were privy to the birth of Christ. As they were drawn into the divine arc of incarnation, those first witnesses of God’s ‘grace upon grace’ (John 1:16) understood it as the very definition of mercy.
So Mary, in responding to God’s implanted Word, sings with amazement that God has chosen her as an instrument in the fulfilment of his promised ‘mercy’ (Luke 1:50, 54). When old Elizabeth gives birth to John, the neighbourhood erupts with joy that God had shown her ‘mercy’ (Luke 1:58). And father Zechariah, full of God’s Spirit, speaks of the deep significance of these astonishing events: ‘Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…by the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.’ (Luke 1:72, 78)
Christ comes, in other words, not because we deserve it – no more us now than them then – but because God is merciful. This is foundational to the Christian story.
And yet, I note, the term ‘mercy’ has all but dropped from our theological lexicon. You won’t find it in the index of many books of theology, and while we use it in our prayers of intercession (Lord, have mercy), frequent repetition does not equate with understanding. Maybe I speak only for myself, but I feel I have preached and prayed and counselled much and often about grace, but very little about mercy. It is perhaps time to do something about this.
So what can be said about mercy? A few thoughts:
First, mercy is not so much a divine attribute as it is a divine activity. Or, perhaps better, we ‘attribute’ mercy to God (saying, ‘God is merciful’) only because God first performs mercy. In saying this, I of course give away my conviction that we understand God’s identity only by way of God’s exertions, which locates me some way along the theological trajectory of Barth, Jenson and others. It is far less interesting, in my view, to say ‘God is merciful’ than it is to say ‘God shows mercy’. While Mary, Zechariah and others may have confessed God’s merciful nature many times in worship, the event of incarnation revealed God’s mercy to them as a transformative encounter. The birth of John, the foetus growing in Mary’s womb – these are the merciful God at work, in specific, if quite astonishing, ways.
Christmas is not so much the declaration of an eternal truth about God (though it is, retrospectively, possible to say that the God who acts to incarnate in Christ must always have been just so); it is, rather, the celebration of a particular, unique, energetic exertion of God, to perform mercy and so to keep his promises. In short, mercy is not a characteristic simply possessed by God, but rather achieved, and supremely so in Christ. In giving himself to us in Christ, God’s mercy is ‘done’.
Secondly, mercy is the contextualisation of grace.I grew up with the definitions of grace as ‘God giving us what we don’t deserve’ and mercy as ‘God not giving us what we do deserve’. Understood this way, it’s obvious why we might prefer to talk about grace. Grace is gift – the free, superabundant extravagance of a God who loves without measure. Grace affirms us as recipients of divine favour. Mercy, on the other hand, in this definition, feels rather less positive, even if it is entirely accurate. We really ought to have been excluded from God’s favour, but by God’s mercy, we are not.
The trouble with these definitions is that they draw far too sharp a distinction between grace and mercy, as if they are different aspects of God’s activity. We would do better, I suggest, to see mercy as the character that grace has, given that grace is being shown to us. Grace – the abundant overflow of God in life-giving relationship – can only ever be experienced by us as mercy, because no matter how close we think we have come to God, it is always, only and ever the case that we have a place in Christ at all because of God’s choice to be faithful to his promise, rather than any faltering movement on our part.
Christmas is therefore not just gift; it is mercy. While Jesus is born a tiny, innocent baby, there is nothing naive about incarnation. While the Son’s eyes may be closed in the manger, the Father’s eyes are wide-open. This baby, this birth, is not a divine miscalculation about the willingness of humanity to enter into a deal. It was Mercy that was born that night – because the humiliation of the Lord of the universe in nappies is as nothing compared to the next necessary episode in the performance of grace: the sinless Son of God bearing the sin of the world to its tomb in his broken, crucified body. That is not what he deserved; neither is he what we deserved. But it is what happened. It is what God did, for us and for the world. It is mercy.
Charles Wesley, as ever, sums it so well, in an almost forgotten Christmas hymn:
O Mercy Divine,
How couldst Thou incline,
My God, to become such an infant as mine?
‘We deserve our Christmas’? Lord, have mercy.