by George Bailey.
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19
In the first week of Christmas it is good to ponder upon the birth of Jesus; not in an idle philosophical way, but in a deliberate effort to see how this good news transforms life now. The word translated here as “ponder” (sumballō; literally “throw together”) is used elsewhere in Luke/Acts to mean “discuss [leading to a significant collective decision]” (Acts 4:15), “help [to defend an understanding of the scriptures]” (Acts 18:27), and even “make war” (Luke 14: 31) – this is an active, productive kind of pondering.
The questions turning in my heart have been triggered by the challenge of recent experiences of death for people amongst whom I minister, and informed by the Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ.[i]
There is much symbolism to explore, but focus for now on the baby – see that it is not in a manger but a stone coffin, and the wrappings are as much reminiscent of ancient burial clothes as swaddling cloths. To become human flesh means that God enters the tragic suffering of human misery and mortality as a vulnerable baby in impoverished surroundings. The creator of all things cannot speak or look after himself, and is dependent on unprepared youngsters isolated from their support networks. Within a short time his life is at risk as other babies around him are massacred by military forces of the local political dictator, and his unmarried teenage parents are forced to flee as refugees.
“Cave, manger, swaddling clothes – are indications of the kenosis of the Godhead, His abasement, the utter humility of Him, who invisible in His nature, becomes visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, is born in a cave, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus foreshadowing His death and burial, the sepulchre and the burial clothes.”[ii]
By incarnation the Son of God becomes vulnerable to the risk of human death – indeed, it is his actual death by crucifixion that sets humanity free from sin and death.
This leads to a question that I have pondered for many years since first being alerted to it by the Homilies of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): if Jesus had not died upon the Cross, would he have grown old and died like all other human beings? At first glance this may seem to be the sort of speculative and ponderous (now using the verb pejoratively) investigation which gives theologians a bad reputation. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this question gets to the heart of the matter. The emphatic answer from St Gregory is “no” – Jesus’ human body is completely united with his divine nature such that it is free both from sin and mortality, and so “He is able to completely dispel the process of growing old.”[iii] There are a series of questions which flow from this surprising proposal (of course, you may want to challenge it, which would be a valuable act of Christmas pondering in itself…)
First, the proposal questions the way that we see the suffering of Jesus in the gospels – what is Jesus Christ’s relationship to his personal experience human suffering – e.g. the privations of his birth and childhood, his hunger in the wilderness, his physical torture leading to death? The Greek Orthodox Patristic tradition sees all these as real bodily sufferings, but also that Jesus is not a helpless victim of human mortality in the way we are – instead he obediently chooses these sufferings for our sake, to reveal God’s love and justice.
The second associated question is over the way that the work of Christ on the Cross functions for our salvation. Jesus is both, a sinless human being free from the threat of death, and also able to choose to hand himself over to death. It is this unique reality of the incarnation which means that on the Cross a sinless sacrifice can be offered by a sinless priest and the sin of all is atoned for once for all. This is using the language of Hebrews – a further question would be about how this idea works out in the other sets of terms and images used to refer to atonement in the New Testament.
Finally, the un-aging non-deteriorating body of Christ leads to questions about the quality and nature of the life of those who are “in Christ” now. The gospel is about eternal life – the restoration of a human-divine relationship that is free from human sin and mortality. Humans who trust in Christ still die, but they are invited to have their attitude to human suffering and death transformed by the promise of Christ. Christmas is not just about birth, but also about death; not just about the incarnation but also about life for followers of Jesus now being changed. As Gregory of Nazianzus puts it, the Nativity of Christ is “not as of creation, but of re-creation.”[iv]
Methodists may not have icons to provoke this pondering, but find similar theological moves in the Christmas hymns of Charles Wesley. The incarnation changes all humanity’s relationship to God: “of our flesh and of our bone, Jesus is our brother now, and God is all our own.”[v] This promises new freedom beyond the pains of death: “Made perfect first in love, and sanctified by grace, we shall from earth remove and see his glorious face.”[vi]
I pray your Christmas pondering may bear fruit… can we, even us, lead grace-filled lives and help those who are today suffering the tragedy of pain and death?
[i] picture in the public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_Icon.jpg
[ii] Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), translated G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, p.157 [altered]
[iii] Homily 16 §5, in Veniamin, Christopher (ed.), Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), p.117.
[iv] Gregory Nazianzen, Theological Oration 38, §4; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310238.htm
[v] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no.199.
[vi] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no. 208.