HOW does the marvellous story of God’s dazzling love give us a surge of grace which makes a lasting difference to us and to others? I’m going to pick out a few of the ways that occur to me, realising that I will only be scratching the surface of the implications of the incarnation.
The first is that, as God is radically with us, so we need to be radically with others.
The birth of Jesus was God’s being “with” us at the most fundamental and committed level. God would be with us to the end, and beyond. That word “with” is very important; it’s at the heart of the gospel. This was no meet-and-greet visit with a chauffeur in the car and the engine still running. And it’s our commitment to be with others which is one of our most distinctive responses to the incarnation.
In a sense, Jesus wasn’t in a hurry. He stayed with the family in an undistinguished village in the Galilean hills for 30 years, content to learn about being a builder, a brother, a worshipper at the synagogue, a member of the community, and gradually discerning the unique nature of his call from God, with all its far-reaching implications. He stayed and waited for the right moment. Jesus was “with” us for a long time before he did anything “for” us.
Our response to God’s gracious commitment to us has surely to be our commitment to be with our struggling neighbours with whom we paddle through the mud of life. Huge numbers of people have discovered that the structure of the world has been declared unsafe, and, as children of the same loving God, we have a responsibility to go and be with them in whatever way we reasonably can. But this isn’t easy.
WHEN I was a vicar in Taunton, we shared with most vicarages the regular experience that homeless men came to the vicarage door asking for food and help for the night. Food was easy: sandwiches and a mug of tea cost little. What cost more was the issue of accommodation.
What disturbed me all the time was the fact that there, upstairs in the vicarage, was a warm, comfortable spare room. I would have let any friend or parishioner stay here if needed; so what was so different, in Christian terms, about my decision with regard to these homeless people? Of course, there are many common-sense answers to that question when you have young daughters and an unknown stranger, but there are many cultures where honouring the stranger with hospitality is a given. It wasn’t the common sense of my decision which I doubted: I was troubled by a deeper discomfort about the distinctions I made and the commitments I would offer to different people.
God came to be with his people, and to stay there until the end. I’m inspired by those who manage so much better than me to echo that commitment in the care that they offer to those who are knee-deep in the mess of the world. There’s the man who feeds a million children a day from a garden shed near Oban. Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, a Roman Catholic, was a fish farmer on the west coast of Scotland and volunteered as a charity worker in the Bosnian war.
He later visited Malawi, and it was there that he spoke to the 14-year-old son of a woman dying of AIDS. When asked what his dreams were, the boy, Edward, said, “To have enough food to eat and to go to school.”
That did it. Magnus then started the charity that has become Mary’s Meals, which feeds that huge number of children in hundreds of schools across 12 countries (Feature, 29 May 2015). When children get a meal at school, enrolment increases immediately, and academic performance improves. The charity still runs from the corrugated-iron shed that was the children’s play-room when Magnus was a boy. As God came to be with us, so this charity is with a million children, to change their lives.
As God is with us, so we need to be with others.
A SECOND implication of the birth of Jesus is that paradox and vulnerability are OK. This conviction is a bit different. It comes from peeking into a manger and seeing a baby God. Christians believe that this is the real thing. This baby God isn’t God pretending to be human (that’s called Docetism), nor is it a human being masquerading as God (that’s called Arianism). This child is fully human and at the same time fully divine. Neither is compromised. It’s true that the early Councils of the Church had to argue for 300 years to come to an understanding of Jesus’s having two natures in the one person, but it was finally settled at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
So, there we have it: a baby God. But that’s no more paradoxical than a carpenter King, or a crucified Messiah. Paradox seems to be a feature of anything we say about the life of Jesus. The very idea of the eternal Word’s, the creative principle behind the universe, becoming flesh is extraordinary. But that’s the way it is. That’s the scandal. And that’s quite liberating for us as we try to follow Jesus and bear witness to the mystery of God. Why? Because it makes us realise that some questions can’t be answered by Google. And, in particular, it makes us enlarge our understanding of God.
Our common human tendency is to reduce the idea of God to a manageable size. Otherwise, the concept of God gets out of control and slips out of our grasp like a giant octopus. So we like to keep things neat and tidy. God is this, not that. God approves of this, not that. God does this, not that. The idea of a baby God, however, blows that strategy out of our hands. God is this and that. God is here and there. God loves these people and those people (actually every person). We can no longer tie God down, possess God, tell God what he ought to think.
It’s often said that the opposite of one great truth may well be another great truth. It’s only our limited minds and hearts that can’t cope with paradox. Reality is not flat, but deep, and welcoming paradox into our vocabulary is a sign that, for us, God is getting bigger and more sensational.
THIS understanding of Jesus as fully human — as well as fully divine — also gives us space to be vulnerable in our living and witnessing as Christians. One of the Christmas stamps a few years ago had Mary wiping away dribble from Jesus’s mouth. He may have been the eternal Word, but here was the Word who couldn’t say a word, so vulnerable was he.
I sometimes feel that we ought to balance our talk of an almighty God with an all-vulnerable God. Pastorally, that can make much more sense in tragic situations where an omnipotent God is an obvious object of anger for people who, at some level, believe that God must have allowed the calamity to occur. An all-vulnerable God is one who gave up omnipotence in the loving act of creating a free, evolving universe, but who now shares with us the grief that inevitably results. The cross vividly demonstrates God’s solidarity with us in the suffering that’s part of our common experience.
Honesty and vulnerability with each other in the fellowship of the Church would also deepen our relationships and help us break free of the ubiquitous word “fine”. You know how it works: “How are you?”
“Yes, fine, thanks.” And that word can cover everything from “I’ve had an amazing week of sheer delight,” to “I’ve just had the most appalling week of my life.”
I’d like to be able to issue on-the-spot penalties for over-use of the word “fine”. So often we find that, if we’ve experienced sadnesses that have drilled holes in our heart, speaking of our vulnerability can release untold generosity in the people of God. The paradox and vulnerability of Jesus’s birth gives us space and permission to own and exhibit both those characteristics in our discipleship and ministry. And, as a result, we might grow into the true beauty of our lives.
THE final implication that I would like to draw out is this: Jesus grew up, and so must we.
The nostalgia industry that our present-day Christmas has become puts Jesus in a manger, and wants him to stay there until next Christmas. We put the Christmas decorations away in the loft, secure in the knowledge that Jesus will still be there, safely tucked up, when we come for him next year. The trouble is, Jesus grew up.
You can see why society prefers to hang on to the baby. In the Christmas story we have all the ingredients necessary for a delightful nativity play: fluffy sheep, an unusual star, non-smelly shepherds, a bunch of wise men, some bemused cattle, and, of course, the winning entry, a newborn baby.
Later life proved somewhat rougher for Jesus. The child grew up to be a controversial teacher, setting both religious authorities and Roman rulers on edge. He taught a radical reworking of established religious practices, and backed that up with compassionate healings, over-the-top forgiveness, and an uncompromising solidarity with the oppressed underclass.
He was bound to come to a bad end, and things came to a head one Passover in Jerusalem, when the powers-that-be combined to rid themselves of this irritating Galilean preacher. They strung him up with conventional cruelty that involved whipping, random beatings, a crown of thorns rammed on his head, heavy-duty nails for hands and ankles, a blood-soaked cross, a final thrust from a well-used spear, and then burial of the destroyed body.
Not quite like Christmas.
So people say, “Let’s keep Jesus in a manger.” He’ll be safe there, and so will we. But Christians are committed to the whole story, from the beauty of the birth to the nightmare of the cross. We want to point out the connection, the point of the story, what God was doing in all of this. We want to let Jesus grow up.
But if that’s to be the case, then we have to grow up, too. Our faith starts off with the need to build some certainties, to put some scaffolding around our beliefs as we work out what makes sense to us. And that might involve choosing one way of thinking and not another, an either/or position. It probably involves reinforcing our views with the right preachers and priests. It almost certainly involves being in a church of like-minded people. Quite understandably, we’re wanting to get a good, clear map of the faith so that we can find our way in new territory.
THE problem is that if we get stuck in this stage of faith we can become both defensive and aggressive when people take a different view. We have to defend our hard-won way of believing or expressing our faith: a particular approach to the atonement, for example, or what happens to the bread and wine in the eucharist. Or even prayer.
When I went to teach in a theological college, I remember being corrected by some students who thought my teaching and practice of prayer was deficient, since you could only pray if you knew Jesus as Lord, and I had clearly suggested that prayer might be a natural human response to life’s many issues, which we can then develop into a mature prayer life. An early stage of faith can lead us to label, box, and guard our beliefs to keep them pure.
There’s nothing wrong with this need. It gives shape to our understanding of faith, and helps us to make sense of the mystical jigsaw. If we remain for ever in that place, however, we’ll be keeping Jesus in the manger. An honest faith will, at some stage, hit complexity. It won’t answer all life’s questions. It won’t cope with some tragedy or trauma. It will be rocked by the convictions of someone we greatly admire, but who sees things very differently. God is more elusive, and doesn’t seem to come at our beck and call. Our earlier certainties will begin to slip and need to be shored up by shouting louder.
It’s then that either we lose the plot and drift away from faith, or we let Jesus grow up. Jesus went from the security of childhood and young adulthood in Nazareth into the open space of a public ministry, and, eventually, into the firestorm of Jerusalem in Holy Week. He needed more than a first-stage faith, important as that had been for him as a devout child in Nazareth. He needed a faith that could face rejection, humiliation, torture, and death at the hands of the Roman killing machine.
We catch a glimpse of it in Gethsemane, and on the cross: a faith made up of trust when his Father seemed to vanish, of love and forgiveness when he was stretched naked before every passing stranger, and of humble surrender when life was slipping away from him.
Jesus grew up, and so, I contend, must we if we are to serve a world as complex, dangerous, and bewildered as ours.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford. This is an edited extract from his book Five Events that Made Christianity: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).
Listen to John Pritchard talk about the book on The Church Times Podcast. You can also listen to the Church Times Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and most other podcast platforms.