The First Noel
This will be, in a sense, my first Christmas. In the whole year since December 25th 2010, a whole lot has happened in my life and I now see the world very differently. But perhaps the most important thing that has happened – perhaps the most important thing in my entire life – was when I met Jesus, who reached into my life and resurrected my spirit. I will, for the first time, be celebrating the birth of Christ as my saviour, not just as the prophet of Christianity or the preacher of ‘good moral values’. The story of the cross has roots: a man was killed that day. A man has a story. So understanding the significance of the cross has caused me to reflect most seriously on the birth of Jesus.
I have never given much thought to Mary’s postpartum visit from a group of shepherds. But this verse stood out to me as I was writing, and I think we might learn from it:
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. — Luke 2:15-19
So I think now might be a good time to return to the idea of the incarnation.
The incarnation is at once utterly mind boggling, enchanting and comforting. I am not one to wrangle over the ins and outs of the virgin birth. Personally, I think it is an embellishment added by the gospel writers to emphasise the divinity of Christ, but is ultimately historically irrelevant. The fact is that Jesus was born and that somehow he managed to change the course of history forever.
The incarnation is mind-boggling because it is a paradox. It is not, however a contradiction: Jesus is God and man, God as man, God with us. This is possible. Jesus is not both God and not-God, which is impossible. My conclusion is that there is that of God in all of us. One of my favourite passages in the Gospels is this:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? — John 10:34-36
What Jesus does is fully embody the divinity that is in all people and completely channel the divine. I think if there were not something of the divine in all people, it would not have been possible for Jesus to come as the Christ.
The incarnation is enchanting because it is a miracle. It is a story with angels and shepherds and magi. Even though what we understand as the nativity story is actually a mash-up of the accounts in Matthew and Luke with a bit of John and Isaiah thrown in for clarification, the Gospel accounts go to great lengths to get us to understand that the birth of the child Jesus is a historical event like no other. There is paradox here too, in the contrast between the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances of his birth. A king born in a stable; an angel of the lord appearing to give shepherds the news. A small town in a struggling kingdom; a star in the heavens marking its place. We are familiar with the story, but its message remains the same: the extraordinary is found in the most ordinary of places, for those with eyes to see.
The incarnation is comforting because it is a love story.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16
People tend to say that God took on flesh so that he could suffer with humankind. While this is true, I think that it is necessary to point out that God took on human flesh to live the whole human experience. God wanted to work with us, party with us, pray with us. Jesus came to give us freedom: exhilarating, unlimited, ultimate freedom. He loved us then, and he loves us now.
I only discovered this carol this year. I love it. To me, it sums up Jesus’ role as the living, embodied revelation of God’s love for humankind, expressed in that moment in history to the Kingdom of Israel. This (four-minute) version is sung by Sufjan Stevens, who is one of my all-time favourite mellow singer-songwriters: