Seasonal Reflections I
December 3, 2010
[Editor's note] This is the first in a series of Christmas-related postings by Carl Trueman. Several will come in this series during the month of December.
Not with a Bang but a Whimper
While enough of a Puritan to be pretty indifferent to Christmas as a religious festival, I do enjoy the excuse to spend this time of year thinking particularly about the incarnation and birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. I know, I know, a real Puritan would understand that Christmas is the one time of year when it is not appropriate to think about these things; but what can I say? English pragmatic moderation always wins out; and so, in a short series of four brief reflections, I want to offer some thoughts on the impossible reality that was the birth of Christ.
Now, one of the most obvious differences between Lutherans and Reformed has historically been their attitude to pictures of Jesus. While the Reformed have generally repudiated them as breaches of the Second Commandment, the Lutherans, from Luther onwards, have been most comfortable to have them in their churches and homes. Of course, we are generally not talking here of those ghastly evangelical pop-art pictures of a Jesus who, as one of my students eloquently puts it, always seems to look a bit like an eerily luminescent Barry Gibb in an ecstatic trance; but rather of remarkable pieces of Renaissance art, such as Grünewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece.
While I find myself strongly inclined to hold to the Reformed position on such images, I do think there is something to be gained from understanding an aspect of the theological reasoning behind the Lutheran position, even if one disagrees with its ultimate sidelining of the Second Commandment. Underlying it is a commitment to the idea of God manifest in the flesh, to a God who has revealed himself in and through the fragile, finite flesh of the human creature, and of making this fragility, this smallness, a central piece of Christian piety. Indeed, to use typical Lutheran terminology, God hides himself in the flesh of a human creature, and thus reveals himself in and through that hiddenness. Who would have thought to look there, at a tiny baby in a manger in a dingy stable in Bethlehem, a town in some minor province of the Roman Empire, for the arrival of the great king to end all kings?
It is intriguing that one of the earliest heresies the church had to face was that of docetism, the denial that God had really become incarnate. I say it is intriguing because there is surely something fascinating in the fact that the archetypal and perennial sin of humanity is that we think of ourselves in god-like terms. We make ourselves the measure of all things, we assume that if there is a god `out there' then he is very much like us -- perhaps greater and wiser, but essentially continuous with our own being. It is surely ironic, then, that human beings find it so difficult to believe that God has actually come in the flesh; that, yes, a human creature is also divine but that this particular creature is not us, it is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
The problem with the incarnation is, of course, that it is a thorough contradiction of human expectations about who God is and how he should act. Yes, it is true that we think humanity is indeed a close analogy to God, but in the sense that we are the measure of God, that we have the right to mark out the limits of who God is and what he can do, that - to put it bluntly - God is to be made in our image not vice versa.
That God would take human flesh, and that not of one of the great and the good but of a child born of apparently dubious parentage to a young woman scarcely more than a child herself, that he would be delivered in a stable - these are things that are an affront to us as human beings. That God would make himself weak and helpless, vulnerable to all of the things that plague this fallen world is outrageous. That he would risk his person through being born in a stable, without even the most rudimentary of medical assistance then available, is ridiculous. Indeed, had one stood at the door of the stable in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night, and seen the tiny mite lying in a manger, it is very doubtful that anyone could have persuaded you that you were gazing upon the very fulfillment of history, the arrival of the last Adam, and were thus in the presence of God himself.
If we are to be rescued and redeemed, we want it to be on our terms, by a redeemer worthy of us: a great and mighty one, powerful in word and deed, one who strikes instant fear and commands immediate respect. It is an insult to us that we should be rescued by one weaker than ourselves. And yet that is the glory of the gospel. Of course, as Paul points out, this gospel foolishness culminates in the cross on Calvary; but it is foreshadowed in the absurdity of the manger. God needs no advice from us; he does not pander to our expectations; the eternal explodes into time, not with a bang, but with the whimper of a new born infant.
It has been said that Luther was mesmerized by the fact of the Incarnation. At this season of the year, may we too be similarly entranced by the mighty and terrifying power of the helpless and vulnerable infant.