At an evangelical gathering on a New Year’s Eve, someone stood to announce that he wanted to toast us all. We sipped from our glasses of sparkling apple cider as he expressed his wishes for our collective good health for the coming year. Then someone else spoke up: “Now please join me in a toast to Jesus!”
I drank with the rest of them. But it so happened that I had recently looked into the history of celebratory toasting, which led me to play around in my mind with some theological thoughts about what we were doing.
Our practice of offering “toasts” on New Year’s Eve and other special celebrations originated in the fifteenth century, when a host would add a piece of toasted spiced bread to the punch that had been prepared for the gathering. The act had two purposes. The bread would absorb some of the less than tasteful elements in the punch that had been prepared for the occasion. But it also added some new savory tastes to the mix.
That very literal toast eventually became a metaphor for singling out, in a gathering hosted by royalty, a woman known for her beauty or dignity or communal service, as someone who graced the king’s court with her presence. Soon the “toasting” was extended to anyone who was thought to deserve special attention at a social gathering. And then, more broadly, it became a way of wishing the whole gathering well: “And to all of you who have joined us this evening for this special celebration, lift your glasses with me as I drink to your health!”
Toasting Jesus is not theologically problematic. He is certainly worthy of being singled out for his presence at our parties. But given the original purposes for placing the toasted bread into the punchbowl, there are other theological matters worth thinking about, particularly the way in which he is himself the “toast.”
My own Reformed theology makes much of the absorbing-the-bad-stuff aspect. Jesus entered into our sinful world to take the burden of our sin upon himself. As God-Man, he became one of us. In all the ways that afflict us as sinners, the Incarnate Son suffered and was tempted. And carrying our sins in his own person, he went to the Cross on our behalf. He absorbed our fallen humanness and, doing what we were completely incapable of accomplishing for ourselves, he removed the stain of our depravity.
Nor do we Calvinist types completely ignore the positive blessings—the new “flavorings” that he has added to our lives by his salvific mission. But we do we tend to rely heavily on promissory notes. He guaranteed the final victory, but the full realization of it is still in the future. Someday all things will be made new. We do not yet know what we shall be, but all will be transformed when he returns as the victorious Lord. To be sure, we can see some small signs of that ultimate renewal in our own lives here and now. Sometimes our journey of sanctification even brings a significant victory over some aspect of the continuing sin in our lives.
But what about the overall “mix”—the larger “punchbowl”—as we presently experience it? How is the larger creation already a more savory place as a result of his Incarnation? I became aware of the extent of my Reformed inhibitions on this subject in a conversation I had once with an Orthodox friend. We were discussing the Incarnation and he made a comment that caught me up short. “When the Bethlehem Baby was placed in the manger,” he said, “wood has never been the same since.”
The Incarnation changed wood? I have no Reformed categories for incorporating that thought into my theology. I hear my Orthodox and Catholic friends talk about the connection between the Incarnation and “nature as sacrament,” but I don’t know what to do with that in my own theological understanding of the general impact of the Incarnation.
Here is the best I can presently come up with as a Calvinist. The Cross is central to the Good News of God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ. But the wood of the Cross was not enough without the wood of the manger. The tears of the Baby were a necessary part of the journey that took him to the bloody drops of sweat in Gethesemane. Because of Bethlehem and Calvary wood has a glorious future. “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found! Far as the curse is found!”
There is much more to talk about there. Recently a group of us—Catholics, Orthodox and evangelicals—met at John Brown University to explore common theological interests. It was a wonderful time of trialogue. We came away eager for more. First Things is itself one of the important “safe places” for continuing that kind of exploration. Maybe the theological significance of wood is a good topic to start with.
In the meantime, though, we are beginning a New Year. Another occasion for toasting is upon us. By all means, let us toast Jesus. But more deeply, we should think about what it means for him to be “the Toast”—the One who, because he has come into our world as one of us, has begun to transform the whole mix.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.