O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.
There is freedom in community. There is liberty in communion. There is deliverance in the covenant. That is the message of Christmas. That is the sign of Emmanuel -- God with us.
Greek theologian John Zizioulas vigorously argued in his work Being as Communion that human freedom -- indeed, the fullness of humanity itself -- can only be found in community. He proposed this thesis as the antidote to the rampant individualism omnipresent in our current culture.
Western culture’s embrace of individualism stems from its embrace of reason because, as we shall see, the individual — and only the individual — has the ability to reason. Emerging from a Christian-Protestant background and because of the heritage of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western society came to apperceive the social, political, and moral worth of the individual.
A group of people, then, does not have the ability to reason or enjoy freedom, strictly speaking according to this philosophy. Only the individuals comprising the group do because all perception and thought takes place within the individual mind. There is no group mind or any submission to group mores. The individual sets the agenda.
Today, individualism is at its peak. Everything that makes human life secure and enjoyable—from achievements in medicine, music and engineering to breakthroughs in transportation, literature, arts, and government—we believe was, and is, ultimately the creation or discovery of one: the individual using his or her power of reason. The individual, therefore, is the hero of humanity.
Sadly, even at Christmastime we can forget about others and only serve ourselves -- wanting the best presents, purchasing gift cards only to benefit ourselves, or giving to charities only to benefit from a personal tax break.
As author Heather Davis shared on her Facebook feed the other day, "when individualism is taken to an extreme, individuals become its ironic casualties." (a quote by David G. Myers, excerpted from Man Turned in on Himself: Understanding Sin in 21st-century America - coming January 2015).
In contrast to our culture's idolatry of the individual Zizioulas retools Greek, and postmodern, philosophy to read Scripture through a communal lens. From this perspective, he argues that full humanity is achieved only insofar as a person participates (koinonia) in the Trinitarian life of God.
This participation is only made possible in and through the incarnation, the birth of Jesus -- Emmanuel, God with us.
Indeed, Jesus' taking on of human flesh -- the merging of humanity and divinity -- makes possible a deep fellowship between humanity as it was meant to be and divinity as it really and truly is, in communion.
Incarnation signals the re-unification of humanity and divinity, the restoration of community, the re-creation of communion and the opportunity for us to truly say, for the first time, "I am." However, we do not say this as individuals on our own believing in Jesus, but as part of a community, a cathedral of humanity, a divine communion that says, "I am because we are."
This is, for the initiated, the phraseology of the ubuntu philosophy derived from the Nguni proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, which means "a person is a person through other persons." Now ubiquitously recognized and respected throughout sub-Saharan Africa among Bantu people groups, the theology of ubuntu reflects that of Zizioulas' "being as communion" theology insofar as it affirms that full humanity is only possible through communion with others. Our very existence and well-being is grounded in the lives of those around us. This flies in the face of our predominant culture's slavish devotion to the self above all others. It's downright revolutionary.
Scripture goes one step further and reveals that true community, and thus true humanity, is only possible in the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fellowship with this eternal communion is only possible in Christ -- Emmanuel, God with us.
Amidst this heady theology I pray you can begin to sense just how significant this turn is. Emmanuel, the presence of the Eternal Trinity with us, is the causeway for us to become fully human. Don't miss that this Christmas. Hear the invitation to true communion and through God's Word and Sacraments come to enjoy the fellowship that fosters freedom and true being.
Of course, I must warn you, in entering into this communion, there is a certain ethic that emerges as well. Living life in communion with Christ leads to a certain lifeway and set of postures toward others. As Claude Nikondeha said to a gathering of leaders discussion post-colonial African theology/ministry in Krugersdorp, South African in 2009, "'We are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and all of creation,' Tutu states. This is a foundational understanding for our humanity, as one connected to others. In African we call this ubuntu. We are persons through other persons. Our humanity is all bundled up together -- yours, mine, those outside this camp, even those across the world. We are interconnected, and we are affected by the wellbeing of one another. When someone is humiliated, I am humiliated. When another is going to bed on an empty stomach, I am not satiated. When you are broken-hearted, my joy cannot be complete. I am diminished when you are not well. We are connected."
Likewise, Martin Luther wrote on 1 Corinthians 11 in the 16th-century that not only do "we walk in the fellowship of [Christ's] benefits and He in the fellowship of our misfortune," but also, "we Christians also do with each other, take upon ourselves that of another, so that one person bears the sin and failings of another and serves the other with his piety."
Christmas is an invitation into humanity as it was meant to be, restored in the coming of Emmanuel. First, Jesus invites us to take on his humanity in fellowship with the ultimate Communion of the Cosmos -- divine and profane, fleshly and holy, perfect and physical. Second, we are called to live in communion with one another, to be fully human by serving, loving, and bearing one another in compassion and community.
As you share gifts, break bread, sing together, watch movies, or just enjoy one another's presence this Christmas I invite all of you to see this as a foretaste of all God intends for humanity itself. All of it is good, right, and salutary in that Emmanuel, God with us, is ultimately a celebration of humanity itself. So, Merry Christmas, Christ -- Emmanuel -- has come and now we are invited to enjoy his fellowship and commune with one another from now unto the not yet of the Kingdom yet to come.