Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th’incarnate Deity:
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!

I love Christmas. Many of you will be familiar with the film Elf and the scene where Buddy the Elf learns that “Santa is coming!” That pretty much epitomises me (at least internally) at the thought of Christmas. I love the sparkling lights, the shimmering tinsel, and the seasonal music. I love the food, the joy, and the cheer. Underneath it all, holding it all in place is the deep sense of hope, expectation, and wonder inspired by the birth of Christ. However, I think in telling the familiar story of the birth of Christ we’ve lost part of the wonder of the incarnation. We enjoy the simplicity of the nativity, but forget the surprise of God with us.

As these blogs often are, my thoughts come from a combination of reflecting on my own recent learning and my experience, this time as I journey through Advent. I’ve just finished teaching a class on the doctrine of the Trinity – a challenging but eye-opening class. One of the first things I do is outline some broad ideas that shaped the world of early Christianity. One view comes from philosophy. In Ancient Greece, there was a stream of thought that suggested the gods dwelled in a perfect realm and with this perfection there was stability – there was no need for change in a perfect realm! The further away from this realm, the greater the imperfection. Ripples emanated out from this realm until you ended up with the material realm where humans dwelled. The realm of humans was full of flaws and chaos. The gods might visit humans, but the idea that a god would live in the material realm and take on all the imperfections, vulnerability, and chaos was laughable. A second view came from religion. Many religious people believed God lived in holy isolation and thus unapproachable. We see something of this idea when we read about the Israelites in the Old Testament. God’s presence dwelled in the Tabernacle but with it there was a sense of fear – the reverence it demanded made God’s presence unapproachable and inaccessible. In the Temple, God’s presence resided in the Holy of Holies, but not everyone could enter it – only specific people, on specific occasions, with specific regulations. Wherever God’s presence was, people were scared that they may be crushed or undone by God’s presence (think about Isaiah for a good representation of this).[1] The idea that God would take on flesh, walk among us, and, as The Message translation of John 1 renders it, move into the neighbourhood, was, at one end of the spectrum ridiculous, and at the other end, blasphemous.[2] It’s very easy for us to read Immanuel, God with us, and for it to pass us by without too much trouble. We talk about the miraculous conception and the faith of Mary but we’ve lost something of the even more basic wonder of the incarnation – the astonishing revelation that God took on flesh and dwelt among us.

Often in the period of Advent we read the words of the prophets about the coming Messiah and it can be easy to read them in a way that unequivocally indicates they were about Christ. On one hand, of course they were, but on the other we should remember that these prophecies say little (if anything) about the Messiah being God incarnate. For the prophets they imagined the coming Messiah to be a great liberator in the mould of Moses. Moses led God’s people out of Egypt and out from under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh. In the same way the coming Messiah would again lead God’s people into freedom. So when Jesus was born, the expectation of the Messiah was one who would save God’s people from the oppression of Roman rule. During his life this expectation still lingered with many still not seeing that who we received in Christ was so much more than a political liberator. In anticipating the coming Messiah, who would fulfil the prophecies, no one expected it to be God dwelling among us – as above, even to consider this was thought to be blasphemous. So when the Messiah came we got a lot more than we bargained for! I think it’s become too easy for us to see Jesus as God, too familiar that we’re no longer surprised that the Messiah was God who took on flesh and dwelled among us. Perhaps we’re trying to give the story a new twist or perhaps we just stick with tradition, but in telling the story we take so much for granted. We can focus on the miraculous birth without mentioning the impossibility of God taking on flesh. We can focus on the birth of a saviour without recognising the implications of that Saviour being fully God and fully human.  When we recapture a sense of awe at the incarnation our worship will be fuller and our joy deeper when it comes to Christmas.

Up and down the country Nativity plays will be taking place (or have taken place!) depicting the familiar Christmas story. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem on a donkey to find there is no room at the inn since the town is so busy for the census. Finally a kindly innkeeper takes pity on them and, though there’s no room, the innkeeper offers Mary and Joseph a stable. In this stable the baby is born and placed in a manger. Angels sing, shepherds visit closely followed by the three kings. It’s often comforting in its familiarity. It’s a story we like to tell at Christmas, and a story that is good to tell, but it might not be the story we need to hear.[3] The nativity hides some complexity. For example, the same word that gets translated as “inn” is better thought of as “guest room” and is translated as “upper room” in the Last Supper narrative.[4] Houses of the day would have a large downstairs where the family stayed and the animals would also be kept there at night. The guest room was upstairs or the upper room. Reading this back into the nativity, Mary and Joseph, having travelled to Bethlehem as Joseph’s family home, were likely to have stayed with family. However, it seems that the guest room / upper room was already full, so they stayed downstairs with the rest of the family (and animals). When Jesus was born the natural place to lay him was one of the animal mangers.

Have you noticed that no gospel account has both the visit of the Magi and the Shepherds? Matthew has the visit of the magi, whereas Luke records the visit of shepherds.[5] Furthermore, it is not uncommon to point out that though we speak of three kings, but no number is mentioned in the biblical account nor that they were kings. A closer reading of the text mentions three gifts brought by Magi. We don’t really know who the Magi were, but one good interpretation is that they were royal advisers (hence sometimes three kings, sometimes three wise men). In this capacity Magi interpreted dreams and read the stars for rulers, so in the birth narrative were likely ambassadors or emissaries of a foreign power.[6] We’re not sure of the timing of their visit but possibly several months after Jesus’ birth. Matthew records that, after encountering the Magi, Herod ordered the killing of all babies under the age of 2 suggesting that the visit was sometime after the birth rather than as a new-born (although possibly it was just to be certain Jesus would have been included in the slaughter). However, even Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is not historically straightforward. There is little evidence beyond the testimony of one gospel (Matthew) and, given the potential magnitude of the event, it would usually be found in other historical documents (although see below). One explanation is that the event is a rhetorical device in Matthew’s gospel to show that Christ’s life was lived in tension with the political powers of the day and, further, as an illustration to invoke messianic similarities between Christ and Moses as liberators (in that narrative Pharaoh tries to kill the Hebrew children resulting in Moses being put in a basket to be escape death).[7] None of this, however, should cast doubt on the overall historicity of the birth narratives.[8] As I reflect on these points of interpretation I realise that the familiar nativity story can become so comfortable that we forget the implications of the show-stopping message underneath it all: the wonder of the incarnation – God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. Yes, we may derive some interesting lessons from the nativity story, the wisdom of the wise-men; the homelessness of Christ; the faithfulness of Mary and so on, but we should not let the familiarity of the story hinder us from recognising afresh the breath-taking truth that God took on flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.

If we can grasp even just a little bit of the wonder of the incarnation then I believe it changes everything. I don’t mean a nominal assent to Immanuel where we nod along in agreement when we hear it being read or sing the words in a Christmas carol, but a deep resonance with the magnitude of the incarnation. The incarnation is a world-changer, redefining the way we understand God. If we acknowledge that God took on flesh and dwelled among us, until then an impossible idea, then all the other events of Christ’s life makes sense. All of Jesus’ miracles, even his resurrection, become possible if we embrace the Word Immanuel. God’s self-revelation in Christ is the upward swing of our reconciliation with God. The incarnation showed that God was not content to leave creation to its own devices, but desired to come close. The incarnation showed that God was not distant, on a realm above humans, but chose to embrace vulnerability in order to raise us up. The incarnation showed that Jesus was more than a political liberator, freeing us in order that we might be reconciled to God. As we travel through Advent and head towards the feast of Christmas the familiar story will be told and the traditions will be comforting. But as the candles are lit and the lights twinkle I hope that we’ll also be able to glimpse the light that shines in the darkness to see that the celebration of Christmas is so much more than a nice story: it is the world-changing moment where God redefined everything that we know about what it is to be living in God’s world.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using or through social media if that’s where you see it!

[1] Watts writes on Isaiah in Isaiah 6: ‘It is astonishing enough that he has been allowed to see “the King, YHWH of Hosts,” and still be alive. Hebrew tradition held that to be impossible.’ See Vol. 24 of the Word Biblical Commentary.

[2] Spence notes that the early Christians had little concern for ascribing divine status to Christ but for other religions of the day this idea left them ‘in serious danger of being charged with blasphemy.’ Spence, Christology: A Guide for the Perplexed, 3.

[3] Notice how easy it can be to tell the Nativity without mentioning God or Jesus as God – I’ve seen it done and perhaps it’s for simplicity, or making it more accessible, or we assume everyone knows what it’s really about, but, to me, it’s a noticeable and perplexing absence.  

[4] The word is κατάλυμα and Nolland in Vol. 35A of the Word Biblical Commentary writes ‘κατάλυμα will, then, refer to the living quarters provided by a single-roomed Palestinian home in which hospitality has been extended to Mary and Joseph.’

[5] Hagner points out that some think these visitors play the same role but other traditions have them as different. See Hagner in Vol. 33A of the Word Bible Commentary.

[6] Again Hagner suggests that Babylon is the most likely candidate for the origin of the Magi. Later Hagner makes a most interesting comment on the Magi: ‘it is obvious that the magi symbolize the Gentiles who, unlike the Jews, prove receptive to the king and God’s purposes in him. The realization of eschatological salvation means blessing for all the nations and not simply Israel. . . . The Church, in the West at least, did not miss the import of the magi, and before they began to celebrate Christmas, they already celebrated Epiphany (Jan. 6), the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.’ see Vol. 33A of the Word Biblical Commentary.

[7] Hagner sees this as a theme of the whole of Christ’s life in the gospel of Matthew: ‘in this passage we see a motif that occurs throughout the Gospel: the presence of the messianic king demands decision and therefore causes division between those who accept and those who reject him.’ The Magi accept Christ as a king, whilst Herod does not. Horsley takes a sociopolitical view noting that Herod was ‘definitely not the divinely anointed king of the Jews, shepherd of God’s own people Israel’ and therefore ‘his own illegitimacy as king is thus set in sharp relief.’ Thus again, Herod portrays the tension introduced by Christ – to follow the religious, ruling authority of the day or Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God? Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, 40.

[8] Hagner comments that ‘To argue that Matthew has been influenced by the OT story of Moses and perhaps by later midrashic expressions of that story does not necessitate the conclusion that his narrative depends directly or solely on those sources rather than on any historical tradition. The story is consistent with what we know of Herod and reflects the way he would have responded to the announcement of the magi. The fact that there are no other unquestionable references among contemporary historians to the killing of the infants may not be surprising if, as seems probable, the number killed was around twenty. Among the atrocities of Herod, this event in a small unimportant village would hardly have demanded the attention of historians.’ See Vol 33A of the Word Biblical Commentary.