Christmas Day: 25 December Titus 3:4-7
Christmas is a time to celebrate those things which are central to faith. This snippet of Titus appears to do just that, citing what may already be a well formed tradition before it finds its place in the writer's discourse. What a wonderful definition of Christmas: the appearance of the goodness and kindness (lit. philanthropy) of God. Not previously unseen; otherwise it would not have been recognised, but the splendid centrepiece of all that Jesus did and was. "Goodness" can be a rather passive term, especially if we think of it as not doing anything wrong, but the biblical understanding of goodness is far from that. It is active generosity and compassion, a will to love. That is what is "saving" or "liberating" about an encounter with God. God's will to set us free is not despite God's goodness, as if God must abandon goodness to be generous or as though there is a contradiction between what justice demands and what generosity wants to achieve. Quite the contrary, God's goodness consists precisely in the will to love, to set free, to set into a right and fulfilling relationship what has been alienated and unfulfilled.
3:5 underlines the theme. It is mercy or compassion which grounds our faith, not our efforts to conjure up our own worth. Of course we need to appreciate what we do well and that must impart a sense of well being. Ultimately, however, we survive not because of the credit we have built up within ourselves or with God on the basis of achievements, but because we have come to own for ourselves what we affirm as God's attitude towards us. That is an attitude of compassion and embrace - not a mindless or uncritical acceptance, which wants to look away from our weaknesses or even our sin, but a boots-and-all love which upholds us and asserts our worth and never writes us off. That kind of love, which does not need to pretend we are something we are not, but confronts us as we are with compassion, may be quite uncomfortable, even threatening - especially if we are bent on sustaining a phoney image of ourselves - to ourselves or others. But ultimately it is that kind of love which counts when the chips are down, when we lose the capacity to build ego capital for ourselves. That must come to us all. It is a very hard truth for high achievers to learn.
The washing evokes the experience of baptism, which, especially for adults, represented a renewal. For all, young and old, the water represents the flowing life of God - another image of God's love, which we need from the cradle to the grave. The shorthand reference to water and the Spirit stands for a very expansive story about coming to the community of faith, submersing oneself in divine love, identifying with the living and dying and living again of Jesus in a way that we are incorporated into the life of his Spirit in the world. There are many other images which may come to mind. Central here is the image of water which washes and makes fresh and new. It is more likely to speak to people today that the cultic images of blood which washed away sins, which meant so much to many former cultures.
Water is an image of life, God's life, renewing, refreshing, cleansing and making growth possible. 3:6 brings us back to what Christmas celebrates. Jesus is the water bringer, the rain man, who danced for us and we all got wet as we dared with muddy feet to share the rhythm of the dance. As God is the saviour and liberator, so this Jesus is the saviour and liberator. 3:7 draws on Paul's heritage to say it all again with the language of justification. It means being set into a right and fulfilling relationship with God, others and ourselves on the basis of God's compassion.
Family imagery lies behind the notion of inheritance. Crudely understood it could reduce the good news to a promise of future acquisition or inheritance. How might the author have understood eternal life here? Perhaps it had begun to narrow to notions of everlasting life beyond the grave. We cannot help reading it in dialogue with other passages which teach us to see eternal life as nothing less than the life of God in which we participate now (and beyond). That may be bliss, but it is much more likely to set us on paths which repeat the old story: engagement with compassion even in the face of danger and threat. It can never be a retreat from love for all people, never a turning away from some in favour of others, never a trampling of the earth as though only homo sapiens matters or only western men and their industries matter. The inheritors of hope are as much future generations as ourselves, so that the inward and outward renewal we celebrate in the Christmas story needs also to be good news for earth and for people to come.
The author plants this piece of theology in the context of worries about living in some accommodation to the authorities (3:1-3) and not getting sucked into the whirlpool of religious controversies (3:8-10). Religion can be as much a distraction as conformity to the Saviour, Son of God, Emperor, who claims to have brought peace on earth. There is a very basic cradle which holds a different dream. Our little piece, a jewel shining in Titus, might well adorn our Christmas scene, because it asserts the magnanimity of God's goodness without restraint and challenges all meanness and pomp.
Gospel: Christmas Day: 25 December Luke 2:(1-7), 8-20
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