Merry

    I became an Episcopalian in college; only then did I learn that the season of Christmas begins (i.e. doesn’t end) on Christmas Day. Quickly I adapted to my new awareness that “it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas”: I declined to reply in kind when someone wished me a merry Christmas. My local vicar told me that he would get phone calls from well-meaning Baptist ladies on about, say, January 1, telling him that he may not have noticed but his Christmas decorations were still out on the church lawn. “Yes,” he said of course, “it’s still Christmas.”
     Today I am uncomfortable with my earlier, rather too smug, self.
     For today, in the world we actually live in, there is an allergy even to uttering the word “Christmas.” The school holiday is a winter holiday. The background music is “All I want for Christmas is you” or “The weather outside is dreadful” or “I’m dreaming of a white . . .”  One doesn’t hear about the shepherds or the silent night or the angels we have heard on high. They’re gone, banished to an embarrassed storeroom where we keep things to which we no longer want to admit publicly.
     So I say, bring it on. I’m happy to say Merry Christmas whenever anyone wants to say it to me. Now. Last week. Halloween. Whenever.
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     Why “merry”? It goes back (it seems) to the 12th century, where it was used to indicate that something gave pleasure. “Merry Christmas” as a wish means: may Christmas give you pleasure.
     And that means, methinks, may you find pleasure in the celebration of the Incarnation. May the Word of God’s taking on our human nature be something that gives you delight. May you in fact find delight in Jesus himself.
     Which is a very good wish indeed. So let us all say: Merry Christmas!
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     Out & About. My fall theology lecture—on rules and exceptions, with particular attention to euthanasia and assisted suicide—is now up on the Incarnation website. You can find it here: https://incarnation.org/classes/moral-rules-and-personal-exemptions/
     I will be teaching a Christian ethics class in the new year. It meets on five Saturdays (once a month), from 1 to 4 p.m., with the first class on January 19. This is with the Stanton Center, and the classes will be at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. You can find more information here, including a registration form and a link to the program director: http://www.episcopalcathedral.org/stanton-center/   I can send you a syllabus if you drop me a line.
     The “Good Books & Good Talk” seminars will continue monthly, with the next one on Sunday, January 13, at 6 p.m. The text is C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, and anyone who reads the book is welcome to the discussion at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.

 

Remission

What comes to mind when you hear “remission”? Most of us probably think of cancer. When cancer is in “remission,” it isn’t active, but we don’t know, it might still be there. If someone is “in remission,” as we say, for a number of years, then we don’t expect the cancer to come back. So we think of “remission” as something in the background, perhaps temporarily defeated, perhaps more than temporarily—but there, probably, as an ongoing threat.
 If, however, you are a Rite One person, you might think, instead of cancer, of “one baptism” which, according to the Nicene Creed in the traditional language, is “for the remission of sins.” Here the word “remission” must mean something quite different from the way we use the word with cancer.
 Its root is mittere, the Latin word meaning “to send, to cause to go.” The prefix “re-” means “again” or “back.” The Creed’s assertion is about the “sending back” of sins, the “causing to go away” of sins. When sins are remitted they aren’t around any more. They’re not like cancer, which might still be there; nor is a sinner “in remission,” in some sort of in-between, maybe-okay state. The sins have been turned around and discharged: they ain’t here.
 It’s a bit old-fashioned, but we do sometimes speak of money that is sent to pay a bill as a “remittance.” When the remittance is sent, the debt no longer exists. Indeed, there is biblical warrant for speaking of sins as “debts,” and some versions of the Lord’s prayer have it so: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” May it please God to remit all our sins!
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 May I be playful for a bit? When we see the word “remission,” there’s “mission” in it. And there’s “mission” in God’s own being. The Father sends the Son into the world with his mission: in order that the world might be saved. And the sacrifice being accomplished, the Father through the Son sends the Spirit whose mission is to speak of what the Son has done.
 God’s mission is what we can participate in: and we may do so when we plant churches, instruct believers, build communities of forgiveness and truth, seek the healing of the world. In these ways we join in the divine mission to overcome sin, to remit it, to banish it, to send it away.
 We thereby partake of the “re-missioning” of the world: to turn the world from its false mission (the advancement of sin) to its true one.
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 Out & About. I will be preaching at Incarnation in Dallas on December 2. The “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will not meet in December; on January 13 (Sunday, 6 p.m.) I will lead a discussion of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. This also is at Incarnation and anyone who reads the book is welcome.
 Looking further ahead: the spring theology lecture by yours truly will be on the theology of suffering. We pray it will not be a painful experience! Sunday, March 24, at Incarnation at 6 p.m.

 

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."