An undeserved Christmas

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.

11 thoughts on “An undeserved Christmas”

  1. Thank you, Andrew – this morning’s piece was a ‘transformative encounter’ in itself. I go on my Monday morning way rejoicing!

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    1. Me too, Josie! The word ‘mercy’ does seem to have fallen out of fashion in some churches, but the Catholics say it three times at every Mass: ‘Lord, have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord. have mercy.’
      None of us deserve it, yet we all need it, and we all have need of it. Thank you, Andrew for this week’s study.

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  2. Where do forgiveness and love fit into this?
    ‘Lord, have mercy’ has echoes for me of a rebel pleading to a feudal king for clemency, for a pardon from the execution he deserves. It is an acknowledgement of culpability and a wish to avoid the full consequences. Mercy is then the act of granting or even pre-empting that request. In the Christian context, mercy goes much further than this, because it also involves providing, at great personal cost to the Almighty King, the means by which the clemency can be enacted. However, the sinner is still adjudged to be guilty and carries that label. For a great many, acknowledging we are sinners is an essential element in becoming a Christian. It is a condition we must fulfil to obtain mercy.
    Several years ago, I attended a rally led by a well-known international evangelist. During his talk he told us of his encounter after one of his rallies with a young woman who was troubled, because she’d had an abortion. “I told her that she was a murderess and that she would certainly burn for ever in Hell, unless she became a Christian. It took two hours but at midnight she finally broke down and accepted Christ. Hallelujah!” I wondered then whether there is a fine line between fervent evangelism and spiritual abuse. What was the state of this woman’s mental health after being told repeatedly for two hours that she was evil by a passionate preacher who was determined to continue until she broke down? Guilt is an incredibly powerful emotion and can be very destructive of one’s personality, including causing depression and even suicide.
    Forgiveness goes much further than mercy, because there is much more to forgiveness than letting someone off a deserved punishment. Forgiveness is the way we feel about the person who has hurt us or offended us. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. Forgiveness is the way we feel about the other person; it isn’t a matter of words or of actions. We can forgive people even if they don’t acknowledge they’ve done anything wrong. Repentance doesn’t earn us the forgiveness of God, because that is already available to us. We can’t do anything to buy God’s forgiveness, because it is a gift. Unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” symbolises a forgiving God taking the initiative, long before we get round to repentance. It is not a matter of God accepting us despite what we are; he loves us, because of what we are and what we are capable of becoming. The spiritual freedom that Jesus offered – and still offers – is to break away, with God’s help, from the unhealthy memories, attitudes and obsessions, and sense of guilt that chain us to the negative aspects of our past. People who are spiritually whole can accept themselves for what they are and recognize what they might yet become with the help of the spirit of God within them.
    As Richard Rohr put it: “In Franciscan parlance, ‘Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.’ It is and has always been about love from the very beginning.”

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    1. We can take a positive view of mercy or a negative one; the choice is ours. I choose the positive.

      ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Romans 3:23

      To kneel before the cross and say ‘Lord, have mercy’ is an act of humility, an acknowledgement that we are not perfect, as God is perfect. No matter how many good deeds we do, or how much kindness we show to others, we are all sinners. Which is why we need mercy and grace. Mercy comes first (we are not punished) and grace follows (we are forgiven.) Love wins every time.

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  3. I find it very difficult to read anything that goes on about mercy. The God I know just does not work that way! It leads to a completely needless obsession with guilt and condemnation that denies Grace, the gift of absolute forgiveness and love that God bestows upon us.

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  4. It’s not so much an obsession with guilt, Robert, as a need for humility.
    Think about the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.
    Even the wisest, most intelligent, most compassionate and most pious among us are guilty of some, if not all, of these sins. When we can acknowledge this before God we show humility. God does not condemn us; He is merciful, but some people spend a lifetime condemning themselves because they do not trust the extent of God’s mercy, and they do not accept the gift of His boundless love and grace.

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  5. I keep coming back to the question as to whether God’s love for us is conditional or unconditional. Once we realise the unconditional nature of the love of God for all people, particularly as expressed by Jesus in the parables, then there is no point in agonising over guilt or worrying if we are acceptable or unacceptable to God. God does not condemn us and does not expect us to ask for mercy?
    Pavel gave an example of the way some preachers use God’s supposed conditional love to condemn and alienate vulnerable people. I could give many examples of the same abusive practice. The victims were people I loved and it makes me angry to think that preachers can behave like that, especially from the pulpit. Obedience and humility seem somewhat irrelevant in these circumstances.

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  6. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then he loves the abusers as much as the abused, the oppressors as much as the oppressed, and the persecutors as much as the persecuted. So why are you angry with those who have abused the Scriptures? If God loves them, why can’t you? Unconditional love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be punished for wrongdoings. I like to think I love my children unconditionally, but if they committed murder I would expect them to go to jail for it. You can hate the sin but still love the sinner.

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  7. I have said all this before. We have to make a distinction between the radical unconditional love we aspire to and the practical ethical decisions we make in life. This is not a diminishment of God, but a recognition that we are called to act for God and bring justice and fairness to all we meet – and this may mean putting sadistic murderers in prison and yes, as Jesus showed us, God loves the abusers as much as he loves the abused, we are all God’s children.

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  8. I think you are arguing for the sake of an argument, Robert. We are saying the same things but in different ways. God’s love may be unconditional, but we are still sinners who deserve punishment and are in need of God’s mercy and grace. Acknowledging this is an act of humility, but many people struggle with humility.
    Anyway, I am calling a truce! Happy Christmas to you and to those you love. God bless.

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