Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital, Dallas, TX
On this chilly December morning in Dallas, TX, this fourth Sunday of Advent 2007, just two days from the solemn celebration of our Lord’s Nativity, with a heart ready to open in prayer, a mind waiting to learn the truth, a stomach eager for some ham and pecan pie, and with my bags packed to head home to Mississippi, on this chilly morning, I greet you with this bit of news: “God is dead.” He passed peacefully while we slept; unexpectedly, He passed while we weren’t paying attention. God is dead. And now, we must mourn. . .even as the birth of Christ approaches, we must mourn the passing of our God. How do we mourn the death of a deity?
Before we ask that question again and answer it, let’s ask a question about the God’s death. As long ago as 1965, the American theologian, William Hamilton, asked our question for us: “What does it mean to say that God is dead? Is this any more than a rather romantic way of pointing to the traditional difficulty of speaking about the holy God in human terms? Is it any more than writing against all idols, all divinities fashioned out of human need, human ideologies? Does it perhaps not just mean that ‘existence is not an appropriate word to ascribe to God, that therefore he cannot be said to exist, and he is in that sense dead’”(27-8)? Hamilton argues that the “death of God” means all of these and more besides. But as we fall toward the celebration of our dead God’s Son’s birth on Christmas, this observation, made by Hamilton, hits us with the truth, and hits us squarely in the heart: “God is dead. We are not talking about the absence of the experience of God, but the experience of the absence of God”(28). In other words, God is dead to us insofar as we experience His absence in our lives. Think about all those times when He failed to “show up” when you most needed and wanted Him. Those dark nights of mourning when His smallest touch or quiet word would have healed your despairing grief. That disappointment is the death of God.
If God is dead, how do we mourn? There are at least two that we mourn the passing of our God. If you find the death of God worrisome, downright anxiety-producing and dangerous, then you might mourn His death by building strong stone monuments of His existence, by writing wordy systems that describe His presence, that inscribe His “being-here-with-us” into our daily language, our everyday living-together-rules. And these monuments of stone and ink slowly, over time, replace the God of the Old and New Covenants, the once thriving God of Abraham and Jesus. If, however, you experience the death of God as liberating event in human history, a freeing of the creaturely spirit from the prison of a jealous deity to explore and evolve, then you might mourn His passing by pulling down His monuments, burning all those pages of ink with their empty words and hollow sentiments. And your revelry of revolutionary destruction will itself become a god to be praised, to be worshiped—the Human, not the merely human, but the Human Freed is set on the altar. I said that you might mourn in either of these two ways. In fact, we have mourned in exactly these two ways. Our stone monuments and our revolutionary fires have become for us idols, mere creatures of creatures toted on the shoulders of the Disappointed and Despairing, and praised precisely b/c each is so easily within our grasp, each so easily controlled. They are idols. And there is no quicker, no more sure way for us to kill God than to make of Him an idol, for us to make God into Man.
This temptation—to make God in our own image and likeness—is overwhelmed in the solemnity of our Lord’s Nativity, in the celebration of the birth of Christ among us. All of this talk about the death of God and how we mourn His passing leads us to the fourth Sunday of Advent where we continue to wait, continue to anticipate, where we hold still and silent for the introduction of God’s Word into human history. Christmas for Christians cannot be Santa Claus, holiday sales, wrapping paper, trees and wreaths, family meals, and getting presents. All of these are happy-enough traditions as they are. But Christmas—the birth of our Lord among us—is God’s sign, God’s wonder-work, God’s promise-fulfilled, His gift of Himself to us: not as a monument, not as a doctrine, not as a holiday or feast, not even as a memorial or a solemnity. Christmas is the Very Gift of God Himself to us. He is born as a child for no other reason than to be our living God in history—yearly, monthly, daily, He is Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
When we create God in the image and likeness of Man, we sculpt an idol and raise a temple around it. That temple can be stone, brick, abstract idea, notion; it can be wooden, golden, paper and ink; our temple can be a belief, an emotion, an intellectual game, or a political ideology. But for this deity, our Man-made god, to be real for us, we must first kill the Living God and mourn His passing. Only then can our disappointment at His absence, or our relief at His demise grow into a full-blown idolatry, a truly man-made, man-centered, man-empowered theology of Man.
So, who will kill Him? Who will step up and slay our divine jailer so that we might be free? Santa Claus? Papa Noel? The Easter Bunny? One of the North Pole elves? Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer? The CEO of Wal-Mart? Target? Macy’s? They needn’t bother. It seems that you and I are all too ready to do the dirty deed. Let me ask you (and myself!): have we waited, truly waited on the coming of the Lord? I mean, have we used our Advent time to prepare for the introduction of the Christ Child into history? Have we prepared for the coming of the Lord, or have we waited on shopping days, half-off sales, post-holiday clearances? Have we helped our ulcers to grow by fretting over family problems? Have we put aside the Joy that is coming in favor of the work to be done? Will the Christ Child arrive to find us eager to greet him, or just ready for it all to be over? I have a flight to catch. Security checks. Lines. Crowded planes. Baggage claim. Car rental. Credit card bills. Expectant family and friends. Deep cuts, old wounds. You might protest here, “But Father, we are only human! This is what happens to us.” Yes, it does. And because it does, we have a living God Who becomes one of us to free us from exactly this kind of dis-ease, this kind of faithlessness. We must live with Him to be free!
Here’s the Good News: our failures are not permanent; our lapses in faith will not endure. Having been “called to belong to Jesus Christ,” we are set up to be free, made to be liberated from the need for idols. Ahaz needs no sign—nothing high nor deep—because he wills not to tempt the Lord. We have no need of a sign from our living God b/c we know what’s coming, who’s coming. Even as we layer the nativity feast with our consumerist anxieties, we rejoice way down deep that the sign we have been given—“a virgin will conceive and bear a son”—we rejoice that this sign has come to pass. And for all our missteps and mistakes in making this feast about our living God, we welcome Him as our gift. Wrapped not in paper and ribbon but in flesh like our own, we welcome and accept the gift of the Christ Child, and beg his Father to show us how to be gifts to one another.
Rejoice! The gods of our idols are dead. Now, “let the Lord enter, He is the king of glory!”
Altizer, Thomas J.J. and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God, 1966.