I enjoy giving a spectacular Christmas gift to Renee. There’s something about the challenge of it, making plans on the sly, then executing those plans. But when you push yourself and push yourself, Christmas in and Christmas out, the cracks appear. Let’s face it, you can only hit so many boundaries before you have to settle for the quick single (American friends, excuse the cricket parlance). Then, you face a photographic onslaught on social media from the ‘one-upper’. You know the one. When you’re getting desperate and seriously considering phoning it in with a gift card, this bloke’s finding another gear. He’s all ‘rose petals’ this and ‘sentimental mix tape’ that. And you think, ‘Just once, mate, can you try to be a team player?’
In all seriousness, of course, it isn’t about ‘the gift’. Renee and I love each other and we know we love each other, but gifts, even small ones with a bit of thought, express that love. They incarnate that love in a way, giving it form and physicality. And even more important than a gift is being present for the person you love – physically, mentally and emotionally present – at any time, really, and particularly in a time of need. It’s about a deep understanding and connection, one person to another.
Anyone who’s ever moved house knows this. You put out a call for some help. Some of your acquaintances text to let you know they’ve ‘got a thing’ on that day. You can incentivise a few others with the promise of beer and sausages to rock up for an hour. In between having a gab with anyone who’s listening, they might shift a box or two. But your true mates will arrive in the morning, get in amongst it, and do the heavy lifting right alongside you. They’re available, present, in the flesh.
At this time of year, Christians reflect on divine incarnation in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ ‘Nativity’ has everything to do with human connection. Unfortunately though, we too often explore this mystery in a trite fashion. We celebrate as Jesus arrives in Bethlehem as a unique gift from God to the world. We then gloss over thirty years of his life as ‘filler material’. He preaches a few sermons and does a few flashy ‘miracles’. Then, bang, it’s Good Friday and the supreme sacrificial act. After all, this is ‘the point’ and we want to get to it in short order.
What’s more, some seem to view the incarnation as God’s exasperated and grudging gesture of charity on our behalf. The Boss dispatches his ‘number one guy’ to sort out the mess we’ve created and to make the ultimate sacrifice, even though we’re hardly worth the trouble. They imagine a detached God saying ‘Hey Jesus, these humans are a pathetic mob, but if you wouldn’t mind taking one for the team, I’d really appreciate it’.
The Word in a Tent
In fact, the multiple layers of the incarnation make it a far more profound and penetrating reality. While most tend to favour the birth stories found in Matthew and Luke when Christmas comes round, John* paints perhaps the most vivid picture of the Nativity (though the writer doesn’t actually include any stories of Jesus’ birth). The prologue alone bursts with rich poetry and imagery, singing of ‘the Word’ that existed with God at the beginning. At a pivotal moment in the passage (John 1:14), the Word becomes flesh and lives in our midst.
The Greek, here translated ‘lived in our midst’ (‘eskenosen en hemin’), literally reads ‘tented among us’. This statement floods the mind with stark imagery. For one thing, the writer intends that we recall Israel’s time in the wilderness, described in Exodus. God’s presence remained with the people, in the forms of a cloud and fire, at the tent of meeting. But there are other primal overtones in the idea of Jesus pitching a tent in our midst. This Jesus gets his hands dirty. This Jesus lives and sleeps rough; he’s not ensconced in an ivory tower. This Jesus is concrete, raw, undignified – in short, someone we can relate to.
The author of the Fourth Gospel goes on to assert that we beheld his glory. The paintings of the Nativity, with Jesus and his parents haloed and the manger bathed in a heavenly light, have got it wrong. This gospel adopts a more ironic perspective on Jesus’ glory (the author is a true master of irony). For the writer, Jesus is the quintessential representative of humankind, glorified in his mortality, in rejection and suffering, in his unguarded emotion (most poignantly, at Lazarus’ death), and finally, in his ‘enthronement’ one the cross, facing a gruesome and torturous death, only to rise up as a ‘new and improved’ human being. He experiences everything that we experience, the outright best and the absolute worst possibilities. This is Jesus in his glory – in the flesh.
A God We can Touch
That’s just one of the staggering gifts of the incarnation: the chance to understand and connect with God! After ages shrouded from our eyes and accessible only through epic poetry, veiled prophecy and our muddled prayers, God becomes physical, tangible, present. And this God embraces us in solidarity, compassion and self-giving love.
It’s in Jesus that we at last perceive what God is actually like.
Happy Christmas indeed!
* Traditionally, this gospel has been attributed to the apostle John, son of Zebedee. However, even conservative scholars have doubts about this. The gospel itself claims the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ as its source and there is no hard evidence within the book to suggest that this person is synonymous with John. Papias of Hierapolis, writing in the second century, linked this gospel to a certain ‘John’, leading to the idea of apostolic authorship. Researchers such as Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel believe that it was ‘John the presbyter’ (whom Papias mentions directly), not John of Zebedee, who was responsible for the book. Other theories abound; possibly the most interesting is Ben Witherington III’s compelling assertion that Lazarus wrote the book!
- Nativitiy (1644), George De La Tour – Wikipedia, Public Domain
- ‘Dome Tent’ – BCF Australia (bcf.com.au)