In the irreverent comedy, Talladega Nights, race car driver Ricky Bobby prefers to pray to little Baby Jesus at grace before the family meal. Whatever the intent of the movie writer, it serves as a fair critique of a spirituality overly focused on feelings and sentimentality. The appeal of the newborn is a natural impulse. However, there is more at stake here than a baby.
Christmas (Christ's Mass) celebrates the birth of baby Jesus--it is the feast of the Nativity. Our hymns and carols convey the power and beauty of the "silent night, holy night" and we reflect on the singing angels and the little manger. Yet one of the most poignant questions remains to be answered: "What child is this?"
The feast of the Incarnation, a deeper theological concept, answer the question.
This baby, totally helpless and dependent, is the Word made flesh, the eternal Son become human. It is Christ, the Anointed One, and Lord, the Divine One. It is a sublime miracle and an irritant to those who prefer their gods be more robust and amazing.
In the West we have long focused more on action than ontology. The church of Rome was influenced by the Empire. It is concerned with law and order. It is focused on justice and is pragmatic and action driven. Whether Catholic or Protestant, we share this common heritage, giving different answers while asking the same questions. We focus on the cross of Jesus. The church in the East is different. It asks different question and looks to the saving power of the birth of the Messiah. John 1 is a fertile Scripture to ponder in that regard.
The challenge of the cross is that the focus is on Justice and Punishment; it is hard for many people to see love and mercy in this scenario. The Nativity celebrates the birth of the Lamb, the one chosen as a sin sacrifice and perfect offering. The Scriptures are clear and we correct in understanding Jesus in this way. Our eucharistic prayers repeat this in myriad ways. A sinful people, unable to make restitution, offer up God's Son, Jesus, the Lamb without blemish. He is our High Priest and the offering: He is our redemption!
But many people, even those who believe, still recoil at the idea. Even if they believe it, they are troubled by the thought;. "Why would God kill Jesus for what we have done? How is it forgiveness requires that someone must die? Why the blood lust, the hunger for a death?" Justice is served, but the Justice served is a scandal to our minds and hearts... It seems more like a Viking religion than the Christian ethic we are used to reciting. Seeing the baby Jesus perhaps we are moved to tears, feeling sorry for Him and His mother. Should any mother have to see her son die in such a way?
But the East provides us an additional insight, an angle to reframe the whole issue. It goes back to the saving power of the incarnation. It opens our minds up to the fuller story of salvation. Yes, the cross. Yes the passion and death, but do not forget the rest. Remember it is also salvation through resurrection, and Ascension, and enthronement, and through the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, and final salvation through the final restoration of all things in the End of Days. Yet, all of these are not all, there is also incarnation.
Incarnation: God the Word became flesh. God stoops to take into Himself the created reality which issued forth by His word. God made it and gave it freedom. He formed men and women and breathed into them life (breath/wind/spirit in Hebrew). He made us, each and everyone, an image and likeness of His being. The Eternal Word is the model of humanity. From before time and forever Jesus served as the model of what humanity is and should be. The incarnation is the source of our existence. "In Him we came to be and apart from Him nothing came to be which came to be." We swim in deep waters here, contemplating creation from before time's beginning. Yet if we do not then the cross will be misunderstood.
Creation is God's self emptying.
Relationship with creation is God's self emptying.
The incarnation is God's self emptying in.
Our nature, fallen and tarnished, forever alienated from our Maker by our choices (corporate and individual) is without hope. We cannot purify it because we ourselves have polluted it. We are the infection, the virus which brings death.[more on this in a further reflection on Alzheimers later in the week]
In incarnation God enters into our condition so that we can enter into His. He bridges the unbridgeable gap by emptying Himself. We are saved by the incarnation of Jesus: the Word made flesh.
Now it is God among us, God the lover and friend of humanity, God emptied of power, revealing a deeper Justice, a Justice of hesed (covenant mercy, love & kindness). In the flesh of that baby is, mysteriously, the presence of the Eternal Source. In that moment all that was lost can now be found. Yes the cross is the center, but the incarnation is the groundwork. The foundation is laid. The life and mission and ministry of Jesus: preaching, teaching, healing and exorcising. Eating with and forgiving sinners, reconciling the outcast with the Holy God. Each breath He takes sanctifies breathing. Each step sanctifies walking. Each tear sanctifies crying. In Jesus we are brought into the heart of God, because God came to us.
And now the cross is self emptying God completing the process of salvation. Entering fully into the human condition, including the sins and injustice and cruelty and horror of life. God leaves nothing outside His love and care. And now the Justice of the Cross is also mercy. And we see that this baby's birth is salvation. Here and now. And forever. Because it is God who makes the self sacrifice, not humans, but because God has become human, 'this man, Jesus' born in obscurity (though angels sing it) the cross is no longer an imposition on another, but God's own act.