December 20

Doubt and Faith at Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Luke 1:39-45

Click here to listen to the sermon only


He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. (Auden)

There are two shades of Christmas and both are blessed.  

The search for truth and the gift of grace are both blessed.  Elisabeth and Mary; John and Jesus; the true and the good; both and all are blessed, in Luke’s Gospel, by God’s healing of the world in Christ, who is both holy and lowly.

There are two trails to Christmas.  That of doubt, and that of faith.

In this morning’s Gospel, following earlier separate scenes, the two stories come together—John and Jesus, Prophet and Pastor, Doubt and Faith, two sorts of Christmas—John soon to be out by the river, Jesus soon to be in his Father’s house.

At a recent Christmas party a soon to graduate theological student talked about returning to her home in the south central part of the country, and her impending interview before her board of ministry.  What will they ask you?  About the documentary hypothesis, or the second aorist, or the synoptic problem, or the teleological suspension of the ethical, or the art of preaching?  No, they will ask me “Why did you go to Boston?”  Her reply might be:  ‘Because at Boston University I can search for truth and affirm God’s grace, I can combine the necessity of doubt with the promise of faith’.  Hers would be a Christmas answer.  Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

Evidence?  Spiritual things?  Truth? Grace?  Doubt? Faith?

  1. Christmas Doubt

First, doubt.  One dimension of Christmas begins with the search for truth, and, therefore, with the real experience of doubt.  For today, then, a full look at violence, greed and silence.

Facts are stubborn things.  Take a hike with me, down by the river. One Christmas Sunday, late modern or post-Christian, commences at the river, let us say at the head of the Charles.  A riverfront Christmas, for which John the Baptist was given lung and voice, that perhaps of the cultural congregation, even late modern and post-Christian, listens in the dark for the truth.  On the radio, say?  

  1. Violence

A pause at the Charles.  To begin.

The world looks nothing like Christmas.  

We are so anxious and fearful of what has become of our fragile planet that we burrow into feverish work, feverish drink, feverish sex, feverish exchange—getting and spending.  No, come this Christmas Sunday, one does not see the Word made flesh fully abroad.  And lurking down deep in the psyche, and the collective unconscious is the worried fear, the prospect of single nuclear weapon, somewhere, somehow, in the wrong, violent hand.

That sort of anxiety makes even strong people inclined toward demagoguery, belittling, bullying simplicity, in the rhetoric of culture, politics, religion, and life.  That anxiety makes us forget the importance of institutions, and the health, and the well-being and the care of institutions—whether a marriage, a family, a business, a college, a company, or a country.  Process matters.  Due process matters, greatly.  Proven experience counts.  Excellent proven experience counts, greatly.  Mocking the institution one aspires to lead does real damage.  ‘A successful campaign against nihilism will have to resist nihilism itself’. (NYRB, 12/15).  It will be a shame if it takes the current generation of twenty-somethings half a lifetime to learn this.  (As apparently it has taken their parents.)  Traction in history requires institutions, and they require leadership that speaks with honest transparency, builds genial trust, and thereby waters the earth with goodwill, goodwill, goodwill (a Lukan Christmas term) in institutional form.

Or look again at the United States of America, anno domini 2015.  Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino.  Ours is an age drenched in violence.  Ours is a culture steeped in violence.  And ours is a country born in violence.  Not the violence of the first setters, only, nor the violence of the revolution, mainly.  Whence American taste for violence and its home ownership of 300,000,000 guns?  We cut our teeth on the violence of slavery.  Racism and gun violence are our tragic twins in this land.  We learned the need of violence—how?  4 million people don’t choose to stay in leg irons on their own.  They have to be kept there.  And how?  Violence.  The violence of the whip, of the lash, of the pistol, of the rifle, of the hound, of the lynching tree, and of ways of justifying, speaking of the reasonable need for, such violence.   While you never or hardly ever hear it, gun violence and racism go hand in hand, twins, the ghostly daughters of our birth as a country.  Read Faulkner or Genesis.  This violent world looks nothing like Christmas.

  1. Greed

A pause along the Esplanade, say at the Arthur Fiedler statue. To continue.  A place to honor music, the height of the invisible.  It is a good thing that Arthur is so sturdy, for the ‘invisible’ faces steady headwinds and even cross winds in our time. The pervasive materialism, endless exurban expansion, and mindless consumption of a people hurtling down a highway focused on the speedometer and blind to the road ahead, are a long way from Christmas.  From every corner we are encouraged to shop.  To buy!  But… to give?  Both would strengthen the economy, but in different ways.  One leans toward commodity and the other toward community.  It may be, one thinks, along the river, that Immanuel—the college, or the doctrine, or the hope—have gone, left for a far country.  As Vahanian said of ‘God’ 50 years ago, the symbols of faith have grown cold for the culture.  Has such a fate of symbolic anachronism now permanently infected Christmas?  Is the whole symbol set, from angels to straw and all between, become, simply, a once told tale?  We know that symbols die.  Sometimes from neglect, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from both.  It is hard to find evidence that the poor manger has much traction to shape a culture any longer.  Whither wonder, morality, generosity? Greed is a long way from Christmas.

  1. Silence

A pause at the Concert Shell.  To listen.  Here is my friend awash in grief for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a spouse.  Here is he, years later, still caught in the flow and ebb of that sorrow beyond sorrow.  It is an empty time for this concert stage, and its empty loss, and lack, is one that many know better than any other truth.  To hear the improbable predictions of Isaiah, about streams in a desert, is to this ear, just now, at the shoreline of the absurd.

When to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things

And to yield with a grace to reason

And to bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season? (Frost)

And from the hurt comes doubt. Having in the churches exchanged much of our capacity in philosophical theology for a saltier but lighter mix of personal narratives and identity politics, we find ourselves scrambling a bit to respond to first level questions about evidence, about suffering, about creation, about content, about God.  Like the earliest Christians, thinkers today do not fear the charge of a-theism.  Nor should they. The search for truth, by the presence of John the Baptist, down by the river is blessed at Christmas.  Nihil humanum:  nothing human is foreign to us.

Emptiness unabated is a long way from Christmas.

Here then is one Christmas trail and tale:  a search for truth and an experience of doubt. The honesty and the courage of this account need naming:  violence, greed, silence.


Although… A pause, perhaps now at night, with the light shimmering on the Charles, to wonder…

In your doubt.  Just how sure are you?  In the moonlight, with a shimmering.  Lights and a light wind and the faint call of carolers.  And…Other?  Mystery?  Spirit?  The Luminous Numinous?  A little faith tracks the trail of every doubt, and sometimes, come Christmas, even causes us to doubt our doubt.

All along the river of doubt there is a shimmering something alongside…  Mystery.  Being.  Spirit.  All the cultured doubt of a late modern, post Christian culture, still, does not erase what is just beyond saying, knowing, and hearing.  Doubt is shadowed by faith.

  1. Christmas Faith

Second, faith. Another sort of Christmas begins with the gift of faith.  A full hearing for wonder, and care, and peace.

Your Christmas trail may be ecclesiastical and not cultural, indoors and not outdoors, by candlelight and not moonlight.

You may be a cradle Christian at Christmas, or a cradle Christmas Christian.  Then your trail would move not along the river, but along the rail.

  1. Wonder (in the Silence)

A pause at the Gospel, in church.  To think.  Now inside, not outside.  Now at the rail, not at the river.  Now with Mary and Jesus, though hearing still Elizabeth and John.

All failure, folly and horror bracketed, for the moment, there is the start of this trail in carols of the English tradition, and in candles to evoke the numinous, and in word and sacrament to mirror heaven. Every year, come Christmas Eve, as at no other time of year, there is an awareness of lasting life.  The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder, as Chesterton never tired of saying.  It is the imagination, that quality of heart and mind so necessary to being human, which quickens again, here at the rail.  Step ahead, just a moment, as sometimes we do, to read the Gospel, moving the page itself into the heart of the church.

Wonder still appears on the candlelit faces uplifted at midnight worship.  Good deeds, selfless and real, emanate still from hearts, homes, and communities of faith.  Generosity, both of spirit and of wallet, emerges again in December.  My Jewish friend’s daughter, steady and staunch in her own faith, nonetheless just loves to go to her neighbor’s house to decorate the Christmas tree:  lights, ornaments, tinsel, all.

Now the passage read from Luke for this Sunday prepares us for the very birth of Christ.  Here is Elizabeth, the mother of the one on the river, and Mary, the mother of the one at the rail.  There are two kinds of Christmas, that of John and that of Jesus, both blessed.  One in the cold light of reason, and one in the warm heart of love.  Both are good, both needed.   Even in utero, according to this Lukan narration, John the Baptist is aware of, we might say prophetically aware of, the unborn Messiah.  But there is a palpable portent of possibility shot through all of this strange reading. We shall honor by acceptance its strange, numinous portent, pregnant with potential for the future.  The Gospel creates its own audience, in the audience of its announcement. Grace renders a sense of imagination, that quiet surrender of the self to the spirit of God.  

  1. Care (amid greed)

A pause at the lesson.  To continue.

The earlier prophecy from Micah recalled David, born in Bethlehem, and was taken by primitive Christianity as a prediction of the Christ.  The whole of the book of Micah realistically portrays the limits of human goodness.  And yet, the image of the shepherd stays with us, and stands out.  Many of our churches are over programmed and under pastored.   A shepherd leads by example.  Here is care:  in the giving of money.  Here is care:  in taking the cloak as well, and going the second mile.  Here is care:  waking in the morning with hope, and praying into the night with hope.  Here is care:  investing in what can cross the bridges of difference.  Here is care:  the ability to see one’s own hurt and suffering, to some degree, as part of a larger labor pain, the birth of the future.

  1. Peace (in a time of Violence)

A pause, too, at the Epistle, the letter to the Hebrews, and its early portent, even at Christmas, of the sorrow and struggle to come. To conclude. Suffering produces endurance.  But God, in Christ, has acted to heal and cleanse.  In faith, we have a way forward, even in the face of other ways forward that do not seem to go forward.  Every day we can live a changed life.  Peace come through peace makers.

In our own lives let us, in faith, eschew any first strikes, on the cheek, or on the character, or on the person.

In our own lives let us eschew any self-full, unilateral action that is not cognizant of circumstance.

In our own lives let us free ourselves, personally, from acting in overweening ways, in ways that use people and love things, rather than loving things and using people (Augustine).

In our own lives let us learn patiently to plan, to foresee, with forbearance, and so practice Niebuhr’s ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’.

Here is a Christmas faith.  In church, gospel, lesson and letter, we may surely affirm the gifts of faith at Christmas:  wonder in silence, care amid greed, peace in a time of violence.


And yet.  Lest faith curdle to blind faith, and the gift of faith into the  wrapping of fideism, we may take the test of reason, a pinch of doubt, with us too.  ‘Test the spirits’, says the Scripture (1 Thess. 5: 22). While Luke surely means to place Jesus above John (cf. R Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 333ff.), and that without a doubt, Luke nonetheless makes full space for both kinds of Christmas.


There are two shades of Christmas.  One of Elizabeth and one of Mary, one of John and one of Jesus, one of river, and one of rail. Yours may be one tinged by faith, though full of doubt.  Yours may be one tinged by doubt, though robust in faith.  Both are blessed, both the true and the good.

We might add, though, if your Christmas is of the indoor variety, take a walk in the moonlight; and if your Christmas is of the outdoor variety, come in to the beauty of the sanctuary at night.  It takes a poet to get this middle voice, this reflexive, this nuanced announcement in the right key.  So, Auden:

He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth. Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life. Love him in the World of the Flesh: and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

For more information about Marsh Chapel at Boston University, click here.

For information about donating to the Chapel, click here.

Leave a Reply