The Dogma is the Drama
Often during Advent and Christmas I read the poet W.H. Auden's For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. This is a long poem with a narration of the story of Christmas interspersed with choruses. Auden's theme is expressed in these lines near the end of the poem:
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
Artists can remind us what we in the church often forget--what an astounding and thrilling and joyful message is the news of the incarnation of the Word of God in the flesh in the coming of Jesus Christ.
More than at any other time of the Christian Year, the message of the church during Advent and Christmas has a strongly dogmatic content. "Dogma" is a word with a negative connotation in popular culture. To the church, dogma is simply a doctrine with a well-defined and circumscribed meaning. The church has paid more attention to how to define these doctrines because the meaning of the salvation of the human race is at stake. There are only two doctrines of the church which are true dogmas--the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the identity of Jesus Christ as one person in two natures, divine and human. We cannot proclaim the message that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14) without the support of the structure of these two dogmas. By the doctrine of the Trinity, we understand the Word as the second person of the Trinity who is God and who has the same being, power and glory as the Father and the Holy Spirit. By the doctrine of the identity of Jesus Christ, we understand that the eternal Word assumed our flesh to become what we are so that we may become what he is, the union of God and human being.
All of this is plain orthodoxy. Yet the formulas of orthodox doctrine may be so familiar to us that we forget how amazing is the truth to which they point. The playwright Dorothy L. Sayers once wrote a famous essay with the title "The Dogma is the Drama." Her point is that what is thrilling about Christianity is its dogma of God's coming to us as a human being, and that there is no greater drama that can be conceived than the drama of the condescension of God in the human being Jesus Christ for the sake of the salvation of the human race.
One Christmas Eve I attended a service of worship when the associate pastor was preaching on the Prologue of the Gospel of John. The preacher told no stories, made no allusions to the cultural trappings of Christmas, and did not try to evade the grandeur of the message of the incarnation. The sermon was pure dogma, but dogma which had enthralled the preacher and demonstrated its power to enthrall us, and to enable us to hear in it the good news of God's salvation.
As Auden wrote in For the Time Being:
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 dies demand a miracle.