Standing between the manger and the cross

The period in the church calendar between Advent/Christmas and Lent/Good Friday/Easter can leave us spiritually somewhat uncertain. We’ve come through a time of celebrating our Lord’s birth, affirming the goodness of created, material reality in the Word who became flesh, also by exchanging material gifts, and singing “Joy to the World.” Ahead of us is a period of suffering, sacrifice and death, before our hearts are once again lifted by “Christ the Lord is risen today; Alleluia!” Can we learn anything from this “in-between-time”?

Yes, because this rhythm of the church year matches our own spiritual pilgrimage as we journey through life. The manger/cross duality brings together two themes that Christians should never separate: world-affirmation and world-denial. Neither one should be neglected or over-emphasized at the expense of the other. Let’s consider each one in turn.

Nothing in God’s world should be rejected
We celebrate our Lord’s incarnation as a gift of God’s love, the ultimate proof from God himself that his creation, including human flesh, is good. Nothing in creation, not food and drink, not our sexuality, not our prosperity and affluence, not the gifts of art, music and literature, not science and technology; none of this “is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:5). Because it is God’s world, John Calvin reminds us that we are not only to use it for our daily needs but also to delight in it as our expression of gratitude and praise to God.

If we stop here and say no more, we open ourselves to the allures of the health and wealth gospel of prosperity: God promises you freedom from sickness and poverty; he wants you healthy and rich; seize the day and enjoy life! Biblically speaking, we would become worldly, “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). The New Testament warning is clear: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them” (1 John 2:15). 

Take up your cross
The antidote to this is to listen again to Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matt. 16:24–26). So then, are we to enjoy creation and to deny it as well? How? 

Historically, Reformed people have not made a big deal of Lent as a time of self-denial, fasting and meditation on the suffering of Christ. We are too aware of the excesses of bodily indulgence that precede Lenten fasting – Carnival and Mardi Gras – as well as the extremes of bodily chastisements during Lent. In the thirteenth century, Christian pilgrims scourged their bodies with whips for 33 days (to match the years of Christ’s life) as they travelled over land and through cities to do penance for their sins. St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) is only the first of many to receive the so-called stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands, while praying, fasting and mediating deeply on our Lord’s suffering. A young Dutch woman, Lidwina of Schiedam (1380–1433), is also reported to have received the stigmata after a period of intense fasting and meditation.

Self-examination must be ongoing
Reacting negatively to these excesses should not lead to the conclusion that cross-bearing and self-denial are “not a Reformed thing.” They are, in fact, at the heart of John Calvin’s description of the Christian life in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin affirms God’s creation as good and insists we delight in it, but he also warns us against an excessive love of this world. He even speaks of a “contempt for the present life” because “if the earthly life be compared with the heavenly, it is doubtless to be at once despised and trampled underfoot.” But Calvin, too, does not stop here: “Of course it is never to be hated, except in so far as it holds  the subject to sin; although not even hatred of that condition may ever be properly turned against life itself.” 

Self-examination, taking stock of our spiritual life, should not be limited to preparation for Holy Communion; it should be ongoing. So make use of the opportunity in this Lenten season to reflect on your level of attachment to or detachment from this world. Does your “stuff” give you proper enjoyment and delight or do you just consume it? Are your family goals in sync with Christ’s kingdom or are they guided by longing for worldly status and success? Do the “good” activities in your life – arts and leisure, culture, sports, recreation, socializing – crowd out your life of communion with God and his people? Have your social and political passions got the best of you and become far too important?  

In sum, affirm God’s good creation and delight in it, but protect your heart from making this life and this world the end-all and be-all. Celebrate the manger and embrace the cross.

  • John is the Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus, of Calvin Theological Seminary.

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