There are many ways to celebrate the holidays at Union. This Christmas season we spoke with three Union faculty members and sat in on a Union class to get a sense of how some of our scholars and students are thinking about this holiday. Whether Christmas is a significant observance for you or a day just like any other, we hope the wisdom in these thoughtful messages will leave you feeling inspired.
“Christmas is in many ways a reset to the world and a reset to our own practice of faith that recognizes the incarnation of God into the world, and more broadly signals the relationship between the mundane and the divine, the sacred and the secular,” shared the Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Union and Pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. “It is a call back to the messiness of life and community, the tangible reality of our faith and how God operates in the world. And in that is hope—not the big, ‘one day it will all be better’ hope, but hope that there is possibility in the muck, in the mire of life.”
Dr. Adkins-Jones shared that in particular, the story of the manger uplifts this theme of hope. “There’s something about the divine finding home in something so mundane and messy,” he shared. “For those of us that want to fight or preach for liberation and believe that the Christian text speaks to that, I think there’s a direct link between understanding the kind of earthiness of Jesus as opposed to this very high, ‘we worship Jesus’ phenomena. Lifting up the manger scene in the setting of Christmas keeps us closer to preaching what Jesus preached, as opposed to preaching Jesus. And I think the closer we can get to that, the better off everybody will be.”
Like Dr. Adkins-Jones, the Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil, Professor of Theology & World Religions at Union is also focused on the significance of incarnation. “Christmas is a profoundly meaningful holiday for me because at its heart, there’s this utterly mind-boggling affirmation that God, or an aspect of the divine life, becomes an utterly vulnerable baby,” he shared. “There’s this wonderful moment where Ricky Bobby [Talladega Nights], played by Will Ferrell, is saying grace, and he’s praying to the ‘eight pound, nine ounce baby Jesus, so small and yet omnipotent. And that’s the mystery of the tradition. Why affirm that the maker of heaven and earth is genuinely a baby? What does that say about God? That’s the sort of mystery I try to think and live into every year with my fellow theologian Ricky Bobby.”
In Union’s Introduction to the Bible class, taught by the Rev. Dr. Brigitte Kahl, Professor of New Testament, Christmas and Bible stories are examined as tools for meaning-making in today’s world. In the Christmas-themed class that took place on Friday, December 2, Dr. Kahl and her students studied Revelation 12, a story not typically associated with Christmas, and looked at it through the lens of a holiday story. “What is a ‘proper’ Christmas story?” Dr. Kahl asked her students. While some argued that the graphic detail of Revelation 12 was too scandalous for Christmas Day, others found its similarities to the traditional stories of Christmas, as it describes a woman in precarious conditions birthing a fatherless child who is going to be Messiah/Christ. “Rev 12 is not a feel-good Christmas story, but it might be a Christmas story that can speak more compellingly to our time, when it is hard to make sense of a damaged world as saved already, but perhaps a palatable counter to despair is to understand it as possible,” shared Laura, a student in the class. In the context of studying traditional Christmas stories, Dr. Kahl noted that “Revelation 12 is a very important story to add because we are really celebrating Christmas under threat. Only if we understand and acknowledge the threats can we really talk about hope. Salvation is meaningless if you don’t talk about what a dangerous world we are living in.”
Though there is much work to be done, all three faculty members also shared sentiments that there is also much joy to be had during the Christmas season. “It’s interesting for me to see how I also want to defend the celebration of Christmas,” Dr. Kahl shared. “I got reassured by some students, who told me, ‘Sometimes, we just need shelter.’ We need to have the space where we can bring our families and children together and cook and eat and just try to have a good time together. These celebrations carry a lot of memories and past history. Your whole life is encapsulated in the way you celebrate something.” Dr. John Thatamanil echoed Dr. Kahl’s sentiment, and said “I wish people would stop stressing themselves out and enjoy the deep gifts of the season, which are time to be with loved ones, time to slow down, time to just be present with ourselves.” Dr. Thatamanil, who was recently ordained as an Anglican priest, will be presiding at the Eucharist for the first time on Christmas Eve.
“My hope is that regardless of how you celebrate, celebrate it all, and rest,” Dr. Timothy-Adkins Jones offered. “Let rest be the greatest gift we can give to one another and to ourselves. To not allow the trappings of the holiday override our attentiveness to our body’s own needs. Maybe we need to leave ourselves some cookies and milk by the fire instead of giving them to Santa. Take care of yourself, sit down, rest, and find something that brings you home.”