If We Really Believed: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
If We Really Believed
It may simply be that the author of the fourth Gospel was astounded by what he was trying to describe. While the writers of the other Gospels speak of a child born at Bethlehem, an improvised manger and tells us a story, the author of John begins his account with the mysterious language of the Word of God becoming flesh. The Word – in Greek the divine Logos – is God’s expression of Himself.
The coming of Jesus is a new and restored creation. In Matthew and Luke, this is the fundamental meaning of Christ being born of a virgin. John, however, expresses this in a different, more cosmic manner, by opening his Gospel with the words “In the beginning” echoing and replaying the opening words of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. We are being told that the God who is the origin of all things has acted in a new manner to redeem all creation by the Incarnation. The Word, God’s essence, communication and the very expression of His being, becomes flesh. This, in turn, is the heart of the Christian faith. It is our claim, and our message, that in the fragility and contingency of a single human life the Creator knew his creation from the inside. “He dwelt among us.”
In the particularity of one human life, at one particular time and in one particular place, the Incarnation provides a meaning which illuminates and embraces all times and all places. As Coleridge wrote, “The Almighty goodness does not dwell in generalities, or abide in abstractions”. That is to say, the Gospels do not open with “once upon a time” but rather root the Incarnation in a known history, in a known geography. God gives Himself not to some other world, but to this world. It is not abstract. It is concrete. In the Incarnation, God comes to our side. He identifies with a world that is both His creation and is yet estranged from Him. It is a fallen world. It is a world of darkness. Yet God comes into the carnage of this fallen creation. As if to make the point, the nativity story is not just about angelic choirs and wise men following a star. It is also about Herod’s butchery of children and a refugee family seeking asylum in Egypt.
God comes down to where we are.
God comes down to a world of terrorist bombs, to a world of refugees, to a world of Covid, cancer and disease, to the darkness of depression, loneliness and bereavement. God comes down in the midst of hatred, injustice and abuse. Paul wrote, quoting an early Christian hymn, that Christ “in the form of God emptied himself, and took upon himself the form of a servant and was made in human likeness”. God did not, and does not, hold back. God gives Himself completely in Christ that we might be gathered into his heart of love. As a 17th century author wrote, “By this day’s emptiness, we all were filled”. In the Incarnation, this very self-emptying of God is the fullness of His being as love. This is the love that judges the sin of the world and our complicity in it, and yet at the very same moment touches us in forgiveness, and redemption, and healing… if we would have it.
If we really believed this, Christmas would be a time to pause, abandon our prejudiced presuppositions and almost hold our breath. If we really believed it, we might catch a glimpse of a love that, “bears all things, endures all things, believes all things and hopes all things” and invites us to risk our lives on its truth… the truth of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us… the truth of the child of Bethlehem. If we really believed, we would shout it from the rooftops and live it in our lives. If we really believed it, the affirmation of this central truth of our faith would stretch our language to the limits and would bring us to that adoration where words fail.
If we really believed…
Instead, we play politics in our churches, entertain conspiracies, debate vaccine protocols and claim that our opinions are sanctioned by our faith… I can only say, God is on your side, but not in the way you think. As Augustine said:
“O food and bread of the angels, the angels are filled by you, but where are you for my sake? He is in a mean lodging, in a manger. He who rules the stars, sucks at the breast; he who speaks in the bosom of the Father, is silent in the mother’s lap. But he will speak when he reaches suitable age, and will fulfill for us the gospel. For our sakes he will suffer, for us he will die; as an example of our reward he will rise again. He will ascend into heaven before the eyes of his disciples, and he will come from heaven to judge the world. Behold him lying in the manger. He is reduced to tininess, yet he has not lost anything of himself; he has accepted what was not his, but he remains what he was. Thus behold the infant Christ.”
A Blessed Feast of the Nativity to you all…