Pondering Death at Christmas

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]

Nativity_Icon

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.

6 thoughts on “Pondering Death at Christmas”

  1. I can happily live with the paradox of Jesus being ‘fully human and fully divine’ but not partially human and fully divine! If Jesus was not subject to the ageing process, how did he get to the age of 33, by which time he would surely have been showing physical signs of ageing such as thinning hair, a thickening waistline and fine lines around the eyes?
    Much has been made of his death on the cross, but it was the resurrection, not the manner of his death, which defined Jesus as divine. He might have risen from the dead even if he had lived to a ripe old age and died a natural death.
    The symbolism of the cradle being a coffin and the swaddling clothes being burial cloths could apply to all of us; we are all heading towards the grave from the moment of our birth, but Jesus removes the fear of death by showing us it is not the end for anyone. We can all take comfort from the words Jesus spoke to the robbers who were dying with him,
    ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’

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  2. Thank you, George. A really thoughtful and helpful post. In my work as a hospital chaplain I frequently encounter death. Death is painful on many levels but there is also often a beauty, not least in the way it seems to make life more vital. So I’m pondering whether there is a nuance to being free from mortality. The paradox of mortality is that it is both our enemy and our friend.

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  3. Thank you for giving me much to ponder on. My concern is your comment “teenage parents”. I have always been led to believe that Joseph in the tradition of the day, was much older than Mary, so he would not have been a teenager as well l don’t think. I don’t think we have a definitive age for him but I’ve always thought he would have been about 30 plus or minus a couple of years. Jo

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  4. Thank you for this opportunity to reflect. I don’t know whether the following reply will be of interest or use, but offer it as belated thoughts:

    I’m not sure Jesus would have fulfilled his vocation if he had grown old and not died. Confucius chose to live and teach in exile, then as a recluse when he came up against power’s resistance to his teaching, so lived into his eighties. His was a way of patience; waiting for water to wear down the stone. What Jesus had to say was perhaps more immediate and challenging, and bound to upset those in leadership, so one way or another they were bound to try to silence him; it’s what power does. Had he hidden instead of allowing his words and actions to confront power as hindering God’s purposes where that applied, he might not have been true to his teaching, and would thereby have undermined his message. If not the cross, there was the possibility of stoning, or perhaps assassination.
    Jesus had not only to choose to embrace suffering, but to be imprisoned in his humanity and unable to escape death to be truly human – hence Gesthemane. This is the essential difference between Jesus and, for example, Krishna, the Hindu god who chose human form without relinquishing his divine powers. Jesus was that aspect or person of God which allowed himself to be fully human, and to experience full mortality. In the resurrection, the frail and broken fully human was transformed by the fully God, and taken into God at the ascension, thereby transforming the human-God relationship so that within God there is an element of broken humanity; God knows first hand how it is, and is even connected now to the ‘it’ of suffering and death; hence the Wesley hymns. There is then a bond between God and humanity which cannot be broken even by death, because God bridges that divide through who he now is, eternally embracing mortality within the vastness of immortality. The myrrh of the wise men represents both death and life/healing. Those who know God in life perhaps recognise his presence and/or invitation in death – bearing in mind that not all who know him would name him, and not all who name him necessarily know him so well, and we are, I suggest, in no position to judge the difference.

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