Meanings of Christmas: The riddle in the words of incarnation
Tuesday 29 December 1998
(2 Corinthians iv, 6)
THE WRITERS of the New Testament were good Jews. They knew that they must not worship idols, lesser "gods" dressed up in the form of animals or human beings. But Jesus posed a problem for them. The only words that seemed to do justice to him came from the Old Testament's descriptions of God. So the first Christians rarely called Jesus "God" directly. But again and again they talked of him in language traditionally reserved for God: as Word or Wisdom, as Saviour, as Judge, as Lord. It was as if they were saying not directly, "This man is God"; but rather indirectly, "Here, in the space filled by Jesus, is a space filled completely by God."
Why did they hesitate to speak directly? Today too, some Christians are reluctant to call Jesus "God". The reason, however, is because they are frightened to water down his humanity. We know that Jesus was a real human being, made of flesh and blood like the rest of us. If we call him "divine" we risk turning him into a sort of super-man, or a demi-God, only superficially human. That, quite rightly, is not the sort of thing we believe in nowadays.
The early Jewish Christians hesitated too, but for a different reason. They were afraid, instead, of compromising the divinity of God. God was not a thing, a created object, but the source of all created things. God could not be limited by time and place. He could not be touched or harmed or changed. He was too holy even to name out loud. Was it not blasphemy to identify almighty God with a mere human being? Yet they found themselves doing just that.
This was not what they had expected of the Messiah. They had been waiting for an inspired prophet, or a powerful king. They received instead someone who pushed their religious language to its limit. They received a man with whom God identified himself. The intangible God allowed himself to be touched, the invisible God allowed himself to be seen, here, in this man Jesus.
But, if this was not what the Jews expected, Christians believe it was the definitive answer to all the half-formed hopes and longings of the Chosen People. Yet it was the answer not only for the Jews, but also for the dreamers of all the strange religions that the Jews had despised. And it was an answer that was shockingly concrete. The poet Elizabeth Jennings puts it beautifully in her "Meditation on the Nativity":
All gods and goddesses, all looked up to
And argued with and threatened . . .
In fables coming true,
In acts so simple that we are amazed -
A woman and a child . . .
Placating prophets talked but here are
All men have only praised
Before in dreams. Lost legends here are
Not on to paper but in flesh and blood,
A promise kept . . .
Painters' perceptions, visionaries' long
Torments and silence, blossom here and
Listen, our murmurs are a cradle-song.
This was how God kept His promise. He gathered up our fears and our fantasies and replaced them with something simple and solid. This is what God looks like now: a suckling baby, a carpenter sharing a meal with an outcast, a criminal hanging on a cross. This was not what we expected: yet somehow it satisfies: "Here are truths all men have only praised before in dreams."
The whole point is that He was simply a man. The Christians who are afraid of compromising Jesus's humanity are right. God did not identify Himself with one of the anthropomorphic gods or super-heroes of the Homeric myths. God identified Himself with an ordinary human being, exceptional only in that he was flawlessly human. In giving us an image of Himself, God also showed us what we ourselves should and could be like.
On the other hand, the Jewish Christians were right. It would have been wrong for us to take upon ourselves the identifying of God with a mere human being. If now we dare to do that, it can only be because God did it first. God has allowed us to use language about this man. God has encouraged us to trust that where we see Jesus, we see God.
In the passage with which I began, St Paul recalls the Old Testament story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai after speaking with the Lord. His face shone so brightly with God's glory that the Israelites could not bear to look at it. Yet, St Paul argued, that glory inevitably faded. Now, however, God has allowed Christians to see that same glory in Christ, the image of God.
Paul's language is daring. Yet it is also circumspect: we do not see God directly; we see the light of His glory reflected in Christ's face. This time, the glory does not fade: the gift has been given in permanent and concrete form. The legends have become a biography; and the visionary artists paint the everyday human scenes of childbirth, of a meal, of a death. God has allowed Himself to be defined in a mortal life. We see His glory in a human face.
Margaret Atkins lectures in theology at Trinity & All Saints College, Leeds
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