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Who is it that we see at Christmas?

By Keith Howard

My eight-year-old friend Jake asks good questions."What is God like?" he wonders. "We know who Jesus is, a person just like us. But what is God like?" "God is like Jesus," I answer.

Then I pray silently that Jake will not ask the next question, "In what way 'like'?" That question would catapult us into a discussion of what is known in the trade as the Incarnation.

The term "Incarnation" does not occur in the Bible. But it's a word that comes up at Christmas as if we knew what it meant. The Latin root, carne, means "flesh." So in-carne means to be "in-fleshed" or embodied.

Early church writings on the Incarnation contain a flurry of exotic words such as co-substantial, co-eternal, hypostatic. But these carry little juice for us now. We have long forgotten the questions to which this language provides the answer.

A classic statement, like that found in Easton's Bible Dictionary (1897), says that the Incarnation is "that act of grace whereby Christ took our human nature into union with his Divine Person, became man.

Christ is both God and man. Human attributes and actions are predicated of him, and he of whom they are predicated is God."

Jake would not be impressed.

When the angels appear to the shepherds, announcing the birth of a Saviour, the flock-watchers decide to go to Bethlehem to check it out (Luke 2:8-20). We too could probably muster a busload to investigate such an announcement. But as we gather behind the rope cordoning off the baby and mother, I wonder who it is we think we see.

Talk of Jesus now seldom approaches the classic description of truly God and truly human.

Kelsey, who is five years old with an awesome head of red hair, asks one day, "Is Jesus God's Son?"

Her interest does not lie in a metaphysical discussion of the Trinity, nor in whether the biblical term Son of God refers to a divine or human being. She wonders if Jesus has a daddy like she has a daddy. If so, Kelsey can feel a point of connection with this Jesus.

His very first followers encountered the humanity of Jesus. He ate, drank, partied, got tired, sought time alone. They could relate, as can we. Yet the Gospel of John portrays disciples coming to Jesus saying, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us." (John 1:22) Even they wondered.

Perhaps that provides one reason why we inherit so many biblical images of Jesus. New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg Verbin says that in recent scholarship, "Jesus has been depicted as a liberal Pharisee, a Galilean holy man, a restorationist prophet, a visionary, an advocate of village renewal, a subversive sage, and a Jewish Cynic." No single clear image emerges; but still, he lived as one like us.

By and large we are comfortable with the human Jesus, although we select our emphases and - like the early Israelites with their golden calf - we have a tendency to mould images that provide us comfort, and support our agendas. We like Jesus as brother, friend, misunderstood companion on the fringe, or even the unappreciated prophet.

As long as we can have the doctrine of the Incarnation on our terms we are fine; but the tradition does not allow that. The doctrine of the Incarnation says that Jesus was fully human. Jesus shows us humanity as we were created - and can be redeemed to be. This stands as a challenge to many current quests for spirituality, where spiritual pursuits end up as a hunt for some ideal version of us.

Perhaps we seek some ideal, original self we feel must have existed before being spoiled by twisted societies or dysfunctional families. But Jesus as the one fully human provides a different model and measure than us writ large, or rediscovery of the "real me." And when those fully human characteristics include vulnerability, the way of sacrifice even to the hill Golgotha, servanthood "to the least of these" (Matt 25:40) then discomfort grows as Jesus provides a radically different focus and goal for all that we can be.

If the proclamation of Jesus as truly human can be irksome, Jesus as truly God can be even more difficult.

Rev. Doug Goodwin, executive secretary of British Columbia Conference, says, "The scandal of Jesus is not that the Divine took on being human. The scandal today would be that humans are not divine."

In early church times, the declaration that God became flesh was in itself a radical posture against those who - like the Gnostics - viewed the body as, at best, a necessary evil and, at worst, an impediment to be overcome on the way to salvation. "Beam me up" could have described their theories of salvation. Spirit matters, said the Gnostics. A divine spark yearns desperately to be set free inside of each person; ignore the rest.

Was Jesus divine?

"Certainly, are not we all?" The answer fits 2,000 years ago and now. Jesus as the measure of God sets a different course and allows us to see quite a different God than what may be visible in the mirror. We are heirs of God, not sparks of God.

One day during Sunday school, Angus, 7, has an inspiration. "I know who God is," he announces. "God is a little boy in a green jacket!" In what ways might that be true? Against what should I measure my understanding of God, even while I seek an age-appropriate response?

Sometimes when I am among those who work with the poor, the sick, the homeless in the name of Christ, I sense the close presence of God. Rev. Allen Tysick works at the Open Door street ministry in Victoria. He tells the story of driving into town early one morning from his home and wrestling with God the entire trip.

"Where are you, God? Please, can you not show yourself to me? I am tired and weak. I need a glimpse."

When he pulled into the Open Door, sleeping on the cement stairway was a shivering half-naked man, tired, dirty, gaunt. As he carried the man up the stairs Tysick thanked God for answering his prayer.

Although surrounded by a cast of abstract language, the doctrine of the Incarnation remains, in the end, a very practical tool. I dare to confess that, because of Jesus, I know something of what God cares about and the nature of God. Because of Jesus we can expect to encounter Jesus in the poor, the vulnerable and the thirsty; and because of Jesus truly God, we can recognize that encounter as holy.

God was not disguised as a human being. The Incarnation tradition means he actually was God-in-the-flesh.

This God reaches out, becomes involved, and risks vulnerability because of passionate love. And this God, as C.S. Lewis claims, now knows "locality, limitation, sleep, sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, doubt, and death" not as abstractions but "from within."

Such an image of God changes what we wait for. We are not waiting for the kind of redemption promised either by the Gnostics, or by the lottery tickets that promise to save our lives by whisking us away.

God-With-Us is "not the God-Up-There somewhere who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God Who comes to us in the midst of them," writes Barbara Brown Taylor. We wait and keep alert for the God who can make all things new and who can be about that work in most surprising ways.

So my answer to Jake needs amendment. Jesus is not just like God, but truly God.

Rev. Keith Howard is a British Columbia Conference staffperson and a minister at Pilgrim United in Victoria.

Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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