As a teacher of doctrine, I have sometimes set students the task of sorting out the best and the worst Christmas carols. They do not have to assess the poetry or the tune, just the doctrinal content. They assure me that the exercise ruins the Christmas spirit only a little bit, and that, after a few years, they are able to start enjoying the season again.
Take, for example, “Away in a manger”. When we sing “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, what exactly is being implied about the baby? Normally, we would worry about a baby that did not respond to stimuli, and did not cry to express hunger or fear, rage or weariness.
The carol is clearly implying that this particular baby is not normal, and that his passivity is some sign of divine calm and control. This both subtly undermines the real humanity of this baby, and makes some very questionable assumptions about what divinity is like.
There is a similar undercurrent to “Once in royal David’s city”, as we sing about Jesus’s “wondrous childhood” of honour and obedience to his mother, although Mrs Alexander does concede that “Tears and smiles like us he knew”. The phrase “Christian children all must be Mild, obedient, good as he” suggests that the hymn is less interested in teaching us about the incarnation, and more interested in subduing unruly Sunday-school children.
“Christian children” might be pleased to know that there is very little biblical warrant for this annoyingly perfect baby Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke tell us directly about the birth of Jesus, and they say remarkably little about the baby himself. We see the reactions of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men, Herod, and the angels, but, like any other baby, this baby is dependent upon the adult world to interpret his needs.
luke’s is the only Gospel to give us a snapshot of the child Jesus, and what he shows us is much stranger and harder than the “childhood’s pattern” of the carol. We see the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, completely at home, talking and listening, having forgotten entirely to tell Mary and Joseph where he was. Dear Christian children, please do not copy Jesus in this respect.
After this, all that Luke tells us about the rest of Jesus’s childhood is that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” (Luke 2.52).
That is a sentence that has caused problems ever since, especially for those whose idea of the incarnation is that a miniature god came down fully formed and inhabited a human body. Luke seems to suggest that Jesus grew and changed, and learned more about himself and about God as he did so, which is what you might expect of any child. But is it what you expect of this one?
Some of the non-canonical Gospels give in to the temptation to embroider Jesus’s childhood with the kind of stories that you would expect to gather around a divine child.
So they imagine him making little images of birds, and, when he releases them, they really fly; they also imagine him striking dead a disagreeable teacher — the religious impulse in the latter story may be hard to find, but it does help to demonstrate that what is going on here is someone imagining what they would do if they had divine power.
The biblical Gospels, on the other hand, know only one unusual thing about Jesus as a child, and that is that he felt drawn to the Temple, the home of God.
In his adult ministry, Jesus constantly provoked people to ask who he was. Some asked in anger, some in bewilderment, and some in awe. That question was exacerbated by the crucifixion and resurrection, and by the preaching of Jesus’s followers.
So, everywhere they went, the earliest Christians had to answer the question of who Jesus was and how he related to God. They had to answer it in a way that made sense of the witness of those who had known Jesus, who knew that he was really born, that he ate, slept, wept, and died. In other words, they could not pretend that he was not really human, even if they wanted to.
But, equally, they testified to his intimacy with God, to his miraculous powers, to his extraordinary teaching, and to the claims of authority he made for himself, both implicitly and explicitly — such as the claim to be able to forgive sins. And they testified to his resurrection from the dead and his continuing presence with them, though no longer in human, physical form.
Gradually, over the first few Christian centuries, Christian teachers tried out one theory or another of the relation between God and Jesus.
Some suggested that Jesus was really only God in disguise, and that his humanity was just an appearance, not really like ours at all. Others suggested that Jesus was really just a human being, with a particularly close relationship with God, but not actually God living with humanity. Still others suggested that perhaps Jesus was some kind of a hybrid — a god-human — with characteristics of both, but not fully either one or the other.
After a good deal of arguing, praying, consulting, and insulting each other — the usual Christian mode of decision-making — the Christian Church came to a common mind at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It said that Jesus is exactly like us and exactly like God, and that that does not make his humanity less human or his divinity less divine. In Jesus, humanity and divinity exist to-gether “without confusion, without change, without separation and without division”.
It may sound as though this definition has strayed rather a long way from the Gospel picture of Jesus, and that I have strayed rather a long way from the theme
of Christmas, but that would be a mistake.
What we are celebrating at Christmas is exactly what Chalcedon describes. We are celebrating the presence and power of God, fully at work in the reality of our own human life. We are celebrating God’s respectful, compassionate, joyful, uncoercive yet transformative love for creation.
Those Christians of the fifth century who came up with the abstract definition of Jesus as “fully God and fully human” thought that this was the only way to describe what they actually experienced through the incarnation. Salvation in Christ is not salvation from the world, but salvation in and for the world. We are not saved from ourselves, but enabled to be ourselves.
So, at Christmas, we do not have to search for the likeness of God somewhere behind the baby, or above it, instead, we can look with attention and love at this real baby.
Where Jesus is, there is the presence and power of God, and God chooses to be here, completely with us, living life as we do. That is why Christmas is a celebration. We are celebrating reality — the world that God made and loves, the people that God comes to live with — all of us, and our real lives.
Jesus is really human and really God, so he holds together, in his own being, our real lives and the transforming, creative life of God. That is why Paul says, in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
That love is now part of our lives and our world because God the Son came to live with us. That means that every single aspect of life — and death — is potentially one where the life-giving, resourceful power of God is at work. It does not override our reality, but lives in it, and so transforms its possibilities.
That is why it is quite right to eat and drink and give presents at Christmas, and celebrate the material world. The challenge of Christmas is to make it possible for more and more people to enjoy God’s world as we do. Babies living and dying in hunger and poverty, women and children trafficked like objects, people living by violence, thousands believing themselves worthless — how can we who celebrate Emmanuel, God with us, help them, too, to know God’s joyful presence in the world?
The baby Jesus comes at Christmas, without power, without protection, dependent on the people around him. The only power he chooses is simply to draw out of people what is in them, the longing to love and care for the vulnerable. That is the Christmas present that he gives to us: this picture of how much God trusts us, how much God sees in us — God’s belief that we will share ourselves with this baby.
The baby needs us, and we respond. But because this baby is also God, our tiny, half-hearted response is taken into the life of God and unimaginably transformed. All we have to do, as Christina Rossetti’s carol tells us, is “give our hearts”.
At its simplest, that is what Christmas celebrates — people who are prepared to give their hearts in response to the God who seeks them out. The community that Jesus creates is one that challenges the barriers that prevent us from responding to each other.
It is a community based not on race, class, or gender, but simply on our common willingness to respond to God and to each other. It is still a human community, because the God who becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ clearly likes human beings.
But it is also one that carries, almost despite itself, however little it recognises it, God’s own vision for the world and humanity. This is our world and it is God’s world, and the two cannot be torn apart, any more than humanity and divinity can be torn apart in Jesus. These are tidings of comfort and joy.
Jane Williams is a Visiting Lecturer at King’s College, London, and a Lecturer at the St Paul’s Theological Centre, London.