Christmas and the Wrath of God

I got back from Liturgy this morning (the feast of Sts. Barbara and John of Damascus), began reading the First Things Evangel blog, and was promptly confronted with this:

…[The joy of Christmas] comes not from mere emotional inflation, or from having a nice Christmas goose, or from having family together, or God forbid that is comes from being wealthy and warm. The joy comes from the fact that whatever happened on that silent night, it happened in the face of, and as a herald of, and as a direct purpose of the wrath of God.

If there is no wrath of God – if God is, Himself, (if you will excuse me for saying it) a jolly fat man with a sack of goodies He brings in a sort of random and sentimental way – then why ought we to have joy at Christmas? What is a “Merry Christmas” unless we understand that manger – that feeding trough which earlier in the day held dirty straw and cattle spittle, but now holds this child who draws men from the East with riches and hearts ready to worship – as the place where there is an answer to the problem man has in the face of the wrath of God?

The joy at Christmas is only as great as the wrath of God which is about to be laid out. It is not because we got something we didn’t expect: it is because, in this child — who ought to have his enemies as a footstool and the Earth as His throne, but who is instead obedient and willing to be born in the midst of barnyard smells and the flies — we receive something we could not, and can not, and did not, and do not, deserve.

Yes… and also NO! Christmas is the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the Incarnation of God, and should certainly be about more than geese, sweets, presents, and warmth. Point taken. God isn’t especially like department store Santas, and neither is St. Nicholas. OK. Did not, do not, cannot deserve – good as well. But instead we are to rejoice in the Wrath of God? Really?

On the topic of the wrath of God Orthodox tend to range from uncertain to adamantly opposed to the Western emphasis thereon. The limit of this tendency is set by the assertion that it’s heretical to say that all will be saved, or that we don’t sin and aren’t in a position somewhat like the Prodigal Son living with the pigs. That said, we tend to see the wrath of God as something very much like the love of God, when we are wretched and unable to bear it. It’s a kind of Great Divorce interpretation of heaven and hell. During Holy Week there are perhaps three hours of services a day, much wonder over Christ’s humility, much awe that “today He who suspended the Earth upon the waters is suspended upon a tree,” much “my soul, my soul, arise! why doest thou slumber?” — but as far as I am aware no wrath of God anywhere.

This question as I understand it is this: what is the Incarnation all about? Is it primarily a prelude to the Crucifixion? And if so, what is the Crucifixion all about? Because apparently Mr. Turk believes that it is about the wrath of God, and by extension the Incarnation is that event which makes possible the satisfaction of the wrath of God. I can’t at this point explain Orthodox theology on the Crucifixion – in our hymnology we almost always sing about it in relation to the Resurrection, which is primarily the defeat of death. We sing things like “When Thou didst descent unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning of Thy divinity,” and “Thou didst ransom us from the curse of the Law by Thy precious Blood. Nailed to the cross and pierced with a lance, Thou didst pour forth immortality for men.” The Incarnation is glorious because it will lead to the Resurrection of the dead — no doubt about that — but it is also glorious because through taking on flesh Christ united divine and human natures, inseparably and eternally, that we might become, through union with Him, “partakers in the divine nature.” And that is way more glorious and worthy of joy than “the wrath of God!”


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