The Demands of Christmas

Mother-daughter team, Beth Fitch and Darby Gerlicher, share their reflections on Auden's "Christmas Oratorio" in this two-part series. First, Beth shares her thoughts in:

The Demands of Christmas
By Beth Fitch
Perhaps some of you join me in enjoying the works of poet W. H. Auden. One of my favorites is the lengthy poem, first published in 1944, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” It never fails to challenge me to think deeply about familiar Christmas Scriptures. The poem takes the events of the story of the birth of Christ and draws out their incarnational impact on all aspects of life, even the mundane.
Five lines from the first section, “Advent” part III, are especially thought provoking:
We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
In what way do those who must die demand a miracle? The poet perhaps allows us to consider two paths. Perhaps consider first the path of creatures making an insistent and peremptory request, a demand made as if by right. We demand a miracle as if God will concede to our request as on a whim.
This is an ugly kind of demand, one devoid of humility. It says, “Give me my way.” It is the type of demand we hear in Luke 23:20-24:
Pilate addressed them [the chief priest, the rulers, and the people] once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” I have found in him no guilt deserving [‘demanding’ in NASB] death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he be crucified. And their voices prevailed.  So Pilate decided their demand should be granted.
Auden had heard a similar demand, the demand for death of others. Alan Jacobs, in “Auden and the Limits of Poetry” published in the August 2001 edition of First Things, recounts an experience Auden had in December of 1939:

He went to a theater in what was then a German-speaking section of Manhattan to see a newsreel about the German invasion of Poland, which had occurred three months before. But it was not the film so much as the audience that Auden later remembered. Whenever the Poles appeared on the screen—as prisoners, of course, in the hands of the Wehrmacht—members of the audience would shout in German, “Kill them! Kill them!” Auden was stunned. “There was no hypocrisy,” he recalled many years later: these people were unashamed of their feelings and attempted to put no “civilized” face upon them.
It doesn’t have to be a demand for death. It can be a demand for the mundane, as described in Psalm 78:17-22 (ESV):
Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
“He struck the rock so that water gushed out
and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
or provide meat for his people?”
Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath;
a fire was kindled against Jacob;
his anger rose against Israel,
because they did not believe in God
and did not trust in his saving power.
This type of demanding is a temptation to us, is it not? It may start with a desire that is not necessarily bad in and of itself. In Psalm 78 we see it was hunger or a craving for a particular food. But the desire turns into a demand with a clenched fist – we want meat. And when our desire has turned into a demand, we are at the point where we no longer find comfort in God’s desire for us because we consciously or unconsciously fear that it may stand between us and our demand. And as we mentally justify the demand, we begin to transform the original desire into an essential need – something we cannot live or be happy without. Numbers 11:4b,6b (NASB) tells us “the sons of Israel wept again and said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat? … There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.’” They already had perfectly nutritious food. The question they ask, “Who will give us what we want?” is the equivalent of thinking that if someone loves me they will get me what I want or at least help me get it. The sons of Israel wept, and we weep. But that weeping is a rejection of the Lord: “[The Lord’s] anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust in his saving power” (Psalm 78:21-22 ESV). Numbers 11:20 describes the weeping in the ear of the Lord as evidence that they have rejected the Lord. We must be cautious. Are any of our desires becoming demands?
This was, in Eden, the demand to be like God. And it has left fallen mankind fearful that God does not want our good but instead stands between us and our desires. It is the genesis of our dread and restlessness and brokenness and self-centeredness and all that is wrong. Auden says in an earlier stanza about the garden:
Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.
This leads to the second pathway of demanding. A demand that is not insistent on having something:
We who must die demand/insist upon a miracle,
but rather a demand that is an acknowledgment of a pressing requirement:
We who must die demand/require a miracle.
We have a pressing need because death is in us. It is a need that cannot be fixed by intellect, money, beauty, charm, education, politics, or any kind of human effort. Pilate did not find any guilt in Jesus demanding death, but God has found in each and every human being guilt that demands death. Justice requires it, because, to paraphrase John Piper, God’s creatures have gone on record as devaluing God’s glory.
When confronted with this desperate need, when we see it, really see it, we can only cry out for help because the need requires a solution outside ourselves and beyond our power.
Auden saw that need in the movie theater in 1939. Jacobs continues the account by quoting Auden: “‘I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value.’” Jacobs summarizes Auden’s dilemma: “On what grounds did he have a right to demand, or even a reason to expect, a more ‘humanistic’ response [from the audience than ‘Kill them, Kill them’]? His inability to answer this question, he explained much later, ‘brought me back to the Church.’”
Auden sees that a miracle is needed, and it must involve the merger of the eternal and temporal, the infinite and the finite.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
It is a thought that explodes our finite minds.
Nothing can save us that is possible humanly:
possible from our abilities or creative imaginations. But this impossibility is overcome by God. And it requires Christmas.
John 1:14 (NASB) “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word was God (John 1:1) and God became flesh in the womb of Mary, to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, to be placed in a manger, to be crucified unto death. God incarnate. Emmanuel. God with us.
Our substitute who has come to repair the damage we have done to God’s glory reveals that glory to us. In Christ we see the glory. It is full of grace and truth. And when we see that glory, we see that all our desires are satisfied in Christ.
We may rightly think of God’s glory as the blazing brightness of His unmitigated beauty. But a favorite Christmas text opens our eyes to another aspect of Christ’s glory: “...although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, NASB).
We see His glory and beauty in His servanthood, in His obedience, in His death, in His humility.
Not everyone, of course, sees this. Although John says we beheld His glory, the “we” was not everyone who saw Jesus. It wasn’t those who cried, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” It was seen by those whose insistent demands had turned to repentant cries for help. Those who no longer found God lacking but rather ourselves.
And when we see this we can joyfully give up all our demands and as Auden says, “depart from our anxiety into His peace” and submit to the demand that Christmas places upon us.
John Piper, in the introduction to What Jesus Demands of the World (p. 23), says: “On the basis of who he was and what he accomplished, Jesus made his demands. The demands cannot be separated from his person and work. The obedience he demands is the fruit of his redeeming work and the display of his personal glory. That is why He came – to create a people who glorify his gracious reign by bearing the fruit of his kingdom (Matt. 21:43).” To glorify Him requires that we crucify our personal glory-hunger and instead hunger after His.
Philippians 2:1-4 (NASB) helps us see this Christmas demand:
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
It is a demand that is fulfilled not by reverting back to human possibilities but is accomplished only in Christ. Jesus said, “‘I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing’” (John 15:5 NASB).
This has a lot of implications for the day to day “demands” of life. Whatever our role - wife, daughter, mother, boss, employee, board member, volunteer - the bottom line of handling all our duties and the requests we make of others is to demonstrate the beauty and glory of Jesus. We need to bring the incarnation to bear on the way in which we deal with demands placed on us by others or by ourselves and the demands we place on others.
We deal with the demands placed on us with sacrificial humility regarding others’ interests as more important than our own, but always in a way that opens up the possibility for the one making the demand to see Jesus as the one to whom all our needs and desires point.
And we ask ourselves when making demands of others, “Am I making this demand to satisfy my desire or is it a demand Christ has asked me to make for His glory?” As a parent, I had to ask myself if the demands I was making of my children were designed to make me look good and to make it look like we had a successful family, or if the demands intended to glorify Jesus by helping my children live lives to His glory. As an employer, I had to ask myself if my demand to receive a particular work product “right now” was designed for my convenience or if I was mindful of the interests of others, understanding their work loads and desiring that my need be given only the priority required to insure the business as a whole glorifies the Savior. And so it goes.
This is not a cumbersome burden, for His burden is light and His yoke easy.  It is rather a source of great joy. Because of the incarnation, every mundane act – the tinsel on the tree, the attempts to love all our relatives throughout the holidays, cleaning up the rubble of the Christmas feast – all these things can be showcases for His infinite glory and wellsprings of His love – given and received.

Beth Fitch is grateful to the neighbor who invited her to a women’s Bible study in 1969 where God gave her ears to hear and the heart to respond to John 3:16 and I John 3:16.  She has loved studying the Bible and women’s Bible studies ever since.


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