Swansea University’s Catholic Society recently held a light-hearted debate - but a proper, formal debate, two teams, allotted speaking times, a vote and a prize for the winner - on the question: Which is the more important Christian festival, Christmas or Easter?
The evangelical in me got to thinking: What about the cross? Shouldn’t this be a three-team debate?
And then a further thought: Isn’t it interesting that (given the inherent over-simplification of typologies) one useful way you can classify Christians is where they place the emphasis - on the birth, the death, or the resurrection of Jesus.
Kierkegaard has always struck me as a Christian who was focused, perhaps stuck, on the cross. Karl Barth once famously suggested that every theologian must attend the school of the great Dane - and then take what they have learned to other schools. Kierkegaard, a searing observer of his culture, a woe-unto-you voice in the church, is strong on “the sickness unto death”, krisis, the binding of Isaac, faith as decision, as “a plank / to walk over seventy fathoms, / as Kierkegaard would say” (R.S. Thomas). But he is weak on joy (as is Thomas).
The poet W.H. Auden took a first class degree at the school of Kierkegaard. He had a deep, and deeply felt, understanding of human sin. But later in his life Auden said that though Kierkegaard had heard acutely the New Testament “theme of suffering and self-sacrifice,” he was “deaf to its rich polyphany. . . The Passion of Christ was to Kierkegaard’s taste, the Nativity and Epiphany were not.” In attending to Paul’s theologia crucis, Kierkegaard had failed to hear the choral music of the opening chapters of Luke.
Observe that Kierkegaard was a Lutheran, and Auden an Anglo-Catholic. So now imagine an Orthodox cathedral with an awesome mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, and the bishop exclaiming on an April Sunday morning: “The Lord is risen!”. Easter! Well, yes, of course Easter - as Monty Python might say! If Christ were not risen, no one would have bothered to tell the stories about his death and his birth. Hermeneutically, the entire New Testament is seen through the lens of Easter. But then . . . the risen One bears the scars, and he still calls his followers to bear the cross. And - no-brainer - if Christ hadn’t been born . . . “Born of the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the third day he rose again” - all three credal statements are integral to the very identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
But what’s that I hear? It’s a tongue from the charismatic movement: What about Pentecost? And another, hopeful voice: What about the eschaton? (clearly a follower of Moltmann rather than Hal Lindsey). Suddenly there are five teams around the debating table!
Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, I’d like to give everyone prizes. There have certainly been some great theologies constructed around all these themes. And without the presence of all of them there will be lacunae in any Christian dogmatics, indeed in any Christian discipleship. But for now, it’s Christmas, so I give the (provisional) last word to the greatest of all hymn-writers (as Methodist bloggers get ready to attack the keyboard in protest!), Isaac Watts:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Oh, okay then (though Richard’s Sketty Methodist Church doesn’t deserve it - no room for “Joy to the world” in last night’s otherwise wonderful candlelit carol service!) - and:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Oh by the way, do you want to know who won the debate? Easter, by (I think) eight votes to four. Mind, allegations of bribery by chocolate eggs are rife.