If I were in a pulpit on Christmas Day this is what I would want to say. First of all, what I would not want to say would be anything about virgins, stables, shepherds or angels. In this I would be taking the lead of Ss. Mark, John and Paul all of whom did not refer to the birth or early life of Jesus in any way whatsoever. These significant New Testament writers were into what they were sure the gospel was all really about. That’s how I feel and that’s what I would like to talk about. What was the Jesus story really all about?
This is a point of view and a very twenty-first century point of view at that. If the gospel is for all time, then re-interpreting it in the light of present understanding of what it means to be human is the need and the right of each generation. To quote T.S.Eliot “We cannot revive old factions/We cannot restore old policies/Or follow an antique drum.” If we are to explore, enjoy, be enriched by faith then it must speak to us where we are, not require that we put our intelligence, knowledge and experience on hold for the duration. The pulpit is one place of opportunity, to develop some new understandings of the message.
The text for my sermon would come from Meister Eckhart who got it from Augustine of Hippo and it went something like this:
Isn’t that a fabulous question? Unpacking it gives us a clue to what the whole show is about. Let me ask you to imagine with me, but this does require taking an evolutionary view rather than a creationist one, though for both the Author is God. Imagine, through countless centuries, the human was evolving and developing in many and various ways, definitely a forward movement if not a straight line. It is a common view that, world-wide, in the centuries before the coming of Christ, a new and unprecedented aspect of humanity came into being and prominence, a kind of spiritual awareness. I am thumb-nailing here. What I am asking us to imagine is, as the Bible has it, “In the fullness of time God…” Surely that means that this was, in evolutionary terms, just the right time to introduce into the mix, the Exemplary Human. What humanity had been struggling towards since the beginning of time could now be seen, known, loved, touched in the flesh. As though God, (or The Universe) were saying, “Look at this. This is what it means to be fully human.”
At this point I must insert a proviso for those people who are likely to find that statement somewhat sexist, believe me, not so. If it was ‘just the right time’ the example had to be male because a woman, society being what it was, would have been ignored. His life clarifies what it means to be human, not male, the gender bit is necessarily time conditioned. (And then there is always the back story that He was the Incarnation of the feminine face of God so the essential human carries the full complement of male and female characteristics, in perfect balance.)
The question of His divine nature came later and countless words were spoken, and written, until through argument, hostility, bloodshed even, the meaning of the divine nature of Christ was thrashed out and orthodoxy was defined for all time in the language and thought world of fourth century philosophy. But before all of that there was the experience of the Man. Those who followed Him, listened to Him and preached the gospel He spoke encountered His humanity; that is the starting point for these present considerations.
It is not easy to get back to the Man because everything that was written about Him came after the Resurrection and no matter how hard one might have tried it was impossible to write about His life before that event, uncoloured by the magnitude of the event.
If the incarnation is to ‘take place in us’ i.e., If we are to be open to the divine life pouring out through our ordinary human life, we have to get to some idea of what made that human life so particular, humanly speaking. Our answers must be of the Now, not reliant on ancient models if they are to be of any practical use. For example, The Imitation of Christ used to be understood as the ideal, that the faithful should copy the pattern of Jesus’ life as far as within them lay. Jung’s view of the Imitatio was that Christ lived the fullness of His vocation, (in modern parlance, lived to His highest values) and our job is to live the fulness of ours, “Jesus and Paul made their experiments, we have to make our own.”
This thinking comes much nearer to our own models, but still there is the question, what was it that Jesus had that made Him so certain of His vocation? If one answers that in terms of His divinity all is lost. And it is not in terms of what He did that will yield up the answer because the service to God and to those who came for His kindness were the outcome of His inner state; what He did and said were expressions of that inner attitude. What was that attitude, that knowing that made for perfection of life? Safety, the knowledge of being uniquely valuable; to have that knowledge in abundance makes everything possible. If one knows one is valuable, precious, uniquely special one has a solid, reliable and ineradicable basis for all that life brings.
Being at one with God in the core of His being was the source of that knowing and that at-one-ness was part of His humanity, not a sign of His divinity. He may have had it to the nth degree, while we can only strive in that direction but surely this is the point of the Incarnation, to demonstrate in a human life the fullness of what human life can be. This is the secret of our calling, to incarnate the divine just as He did. Ultimately it is not a matter of getting everything right, not sinning, etc. It is in knowing that one is loved, that one is precious, that everything is possible and one can manifest all sorts of great and wondrous things. The model does not demonstrate a serene and trouble-free life but it does provide a guide for meeting troubles, however great or small, and carries with it the promise of a very satisfying conclusion to this our earthly life.
Jesus came to demonstrate the love of God to and for humanity, that is straight orthodox theology. Supposing ‘the fulness of time’ was the time to introduce the reality of the love of God into human consciousness. Prior to His coming religious attitudes were dominated by belief in the wickedness of humanity and the need to placate an angry God, justly angry because of human disobedience. Sacrifice, fasting, deprivation, long, long agonised prayers of contrition these were the means of trying to get God on side and to avoid the deserved punishment. The accent, you see, was on the human action; being so wicked it was impossible to comprehend being loved. God’s love had to be deserved, earned, striven for.
Jesus comes and says the dead opposite, the ‘New Wine’ of His example was to place the accent on God’s action. He knew that, right through to His middle, no matter what, He was loved by God. What made Him different, was this profound unshakeable knowledge that He was precious, uniquely valuable, because He was human. Repeat, because He was human, NOT because He was in some inexplicable way different from everyone else. If He had been working from that presupposition then He was not fully human, but Something Else which makes nonsense of the whole show.
The addiction to belief in human unworthiness before God proved too strong to be overcome by the message of love, so very quickly after the Jesus event the ‘same ole, same ole’ religious way of being took over and has been in place ever since. It was G.K. Chesterton who said that the problem about Christianity was that it had never really been tried. Supposing the point of Christianity was meant to be the reversal of the existing relationship of human to the divine. From one of fear, anxiety, self-loathing on the human side and threat, anger, disappointment and demand on the divine to one in which love was indeed the dominant on both sides.
The human motion towards God was fired by a need to placate. In the Jesus model the motion towards God was fired by the acceptance of love. In His Way we don’t do good work of any kind to earn the love of God, whatever we do ‘for God’, goodness, kindness, comes from a heart brimming over with gratitude and joy because we are loved.
I believe this is the heart of the of Incarnation but religion has always preferred to concentrate on the sinfulness of humanity rather than on the overwhelming love of God. If we are to understand what Incarnation means, to grasp the astonishing truth, we have to get over ourselves and realise that the love of God is more important than the sins, lacks and shortcomings over which we spend so much of our time agonising.
As this agonising over our deficiencies rather than embracing the love seems to have been a religious staple, we might ask why this should be so. Somehow it isn’t good enough just to put it down to cussedness. It is, rather, what Dom Sebastian Moore calls, “the Great Refusal” i.e., the refusal to be all that we are capable of being. Maybe we have not yet evolved far enough to embrace the fullness of love, terrestrial or celestial; absolute love is too much for us.
This fear of such love was beautifully articulated by the late Fr. Harry Williams CR, in his book Becoming What I Am:
The wondrous thing is that being able to accept this explanation instead of simply wallowing in our sense of inadequacy brings us into a new place of both humility and maturity as we are re-aligned to ourselves, our world and to God.
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