From Processing to Recessing with the Gospel
Did you notice the difference in the Gospel procession this year? The Gospel was chanted to the north not to the west or back of the church as we have done in years past. That's the way it was historically done. The Gospel was chanted to the north of the church because that's where the pagans were in relation to the ancient church. The Good News was broadcast to them through the walls of the church (Heresy of Formlessness, 203). There's a lot more symbolism connected to processing with the Gospel, but if it doesn't lead to you recessing with it, you've missed the main point.
Although we process with an entire Bible, historically, the entire Bible didn't make the trip down the aisle, not even the whole New Testament, just the four Gospels did. The Books detailing the birth, holy life, innocent suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were the only ones carried out into the midst of the congregation to emphasize that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.
The entire Bible is the Word of God. The entire Bible is inspired, holy, God-breathed. Yet the Gospels were set apart historically. When a man was ordained into the holy ministry, the Gospel Book was placed on his head. To this day, we remind each other that our Lord Christ is especially speaking in the Gospel by standing for its reading and by giving glory and praise to Him at the beginning and ending of it.
The Gospel is set aside because all of the Old Testament flows to it and the rest of the New Testament flows from it. We see this from the fact that the first Gospel begins with "these are the generations of Jesus Christ." We heard in Genesis Bible class this same phrase, and said it could indicate the signature of the one relaying that part of Genesis. All that went before came from him. So Matthew tells us by this same phrase that all the Old Testament came from and flows to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
The rest of the Newt Testament flows from Jesus. The first Book after the Gospels, Acts, shows this. In Acts, Luke says his Gospel was what Jesus began to do and teach. That makes what the apostles do in Acts what Jesus continued to do and teach. The rest of the New Testament, indeed the rest of history, flows from the Gospel accounts. Revelation shows the Lion of the tribe of Judah overcoming to open the scroll that sets the rest of history in motion. Paul tells the Romans that on the Last Day "God shall judge the secrets of men according to my Gospel."
The Gospel, the Good News that Jesus has won for us a victory over Sin, Death, and the Devil, is carried out into the midst of the congregation today. The person who holds the Gospel Book is supposed to hold it head high with the Book resting on his forehead. I've never done that because I thought you'd think it so strange you wouldn't hear the Gospel proclamation. Holding the Book in that way is surely the most expressive way of showing the Gospel's majestic position. Man becomes just a book-rest (Ibid. 200).
Someone else said that. While I agree that holding the Gospel Book that way does show its importance, I think the Gospel itself proclaims that man is more than a book-rest. We confess in the creed that Jesus Christ, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man. Our Lord Jesus did not become a book-rest.
Let's nip this in the bud right now. I don't want to overcorrect here and drive into the other ditch and tell you Jesus was made man because mankind was so noble, worthy, etc. And I do what to emphasize what a trip, what a journey, what a miracle it was for the Creator to become incarnate in His Creation. But God the Son who is one substance with the Father didn't take on the substance of man to make us book-rests as in a "Twilight Zone" episode where humans end up as living furniture in the house of some super being.
But before we see where the Gospel does take us, let's see where it takes God the Son. God takes on flesh and blood. He accepts our limitations so that He hungers, thirsts, and tires. He accepts our fallen state so that He knows what it to have indigestion, a common cold, and the cold feeling of Death approaching. C. S. Lewis likened it to us becoming a slug or a crab (Mere Christianity, 155). There may be something to learn here. The Twilight Zone had an episode where a man was so afraid that someone had injected him with a serum that would dissolve his skeleton and he would become a giant worm, he killed himself.
To be in this body is normal to us. We have a hard time picturing body-less souls. In fact, we don't. We see our loved ones in heaven in bodies right now. God the Son was a body-less spirit. It is strange to Him to have a body. I would liken it to Cesare Borgia who after being poisoned in 1503 had an ox thrown to the floor, tied to posts, gutted alive, and then had himself sewn into the abdominal captivity with only his head projecting. He did this every morning so the heat from the ox's dying fever would sweat the poison out of him (A Browser's Dictionary, 37-8).
Imagine how disgusting it would be to be sewn up in a freshly killed ox with only your head sticking out? You might do it to save your life, right? Well Jesus didn't do it to save His life, but to save yours. And not even the head of God the Son was left to protrude from the carcass of man. No, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in the Man Jesus says Colossians. And going back to the crab illustration, Jesus having taken on our crabness or if you prefer our "wormness" became the perfect crab or worm.
You must see this. To take our place under the Law, both to keep it in our place and to die in our place. Jesus needed to be 100% Man. The Laws of humanity no more applied to God the Son then the laws of crabs or worms apply to you. But Jesus took our obligations on Himself. His Father was a pleased with Him as you are with your kids on Christmas morning. How happy the Father was with the Son. He could find no fault, no error, no lack, no sin because there was none.
But keeping the Law and making God happy were only part of what needed to happen if we were going to be saved. A shedding of blood, a separating of body from soul, our dying was also required by God's Law. In Psalm 22 Jesus says He dies on the cross not even as a man but as a worm: so horrible, so hellish, so complete was Jesus' suffering and death. Imagine being sewn up in an oxen and then being led out to slaughter for other oxen. That's what Jesus did for us men and our salvation. He didn't do this to make us book-rests, but so that we might have a close encounter of the 8th kind.
Since the 80's, you're familiar with close encounter terminology. Originally supposed encounters with outer space aliens were classed under 3 categories. Four more were later added. A close encounter of the 7th kind is a human and alien mating and producing an alien-human hybrid. This is as far as Greek mythology gets. They have Hercules who is 50% man and 50% god. This is as far as the so-called "virgin" birth stories of the pagans get too. We're often told ancient peoples had all their heroes born of virgins. That's not true. No one has ever been able to show that they had a truly virginal conception where the mother did not know a man. "They were all instances of a god taking the place of a male human parent and having [relations] with a woman" (Fitzmeyer, Luke I-IX, 342).
If Jesus were a close encounter with God of the 7th kind He would be half-man and half-God. That's why I've called Him a close encounter of the 8th kind. Jesus is 100% God and 100% Man, but that doesn't make Jesus 200% anything. It makes Him 100% the Second Person of the Godhead. The mind reels at this, but this is the essence of our Christmas celebration. Let me show you.
In order to keep the name of God from coming in close verbal contact with them, the Jews used 3 Aramaic words in place of the name. They used Shekinah (dwell), Memra (word), and Yeqara (glory), but you don't really see the wonder of this till you hear them in connection with our text. "The Word (Memra) was made flesh and dwelt (Shekinah)among us, and we beheld His glory (Yeqara) (Caird, Revelation, 264). The Jews since the Babylonian captivity had been using these 3 words in place of the Name of God. John applies them directly to Jesus in one sentence. There in that manger is God the Word. There in that Baby God dwells among us. There in that whining, crying, nursing, and cooing Baby is the glory of God Almighty.
No wonder angels sang Gloria in Excelesis; no wonder that shepherds ran to Bethlehem; no wonder aged Simeon and Anna rejoiced, and wise men worshipped. God has come in Person to keep His holy laws that unholy men could never keep. God had come to die in place of unholy men to pay for those broken laws. The Gospel is all about what God does. The Gospel is God coming into our midst for all men and their salvation. The Gospel is God giving up the full use of His glory to redeem ungodly sinners. The Gospel processes out into the congregation to show the truth of the last hymn we sing, "Come from on high to me; I cannot rise to Thee."
But God didn't come to make us book-rests but to make us Gospel bearers. He processes to us with the redemption that He won thousands of years ago so that we might recess out of here with it. He brings it in Words, in Water, in Bread and Wine. He means for His glory (Yeqara)to dwell (Shekinah) in us through His Word (Memra) both the audible and the visible, in Word and Sacrament.
It might help if at Christmas our Communion wafers were embossed not with the crucifix but with "a little Baby Jesus, tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes." That's what was done historically (Hersey of Formlessness, 178), and that's the truth theologically. You go out of here into a dark, fallen, dying world having eaten and drank the Christmas Gospel. You recess with the light, forgiveness, and life He bought, brought, and brings. You are the Gospel recessional. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Nativity of our Lord (20111225); John 1:14