Christmas is not a date. It is a statement about the Christian understanding of God. And theologically we call that understanding ‘incarnation’.
Simplistically, and also erroneously in its simplicity, incarnation is explained as God coming to earth in the form of a baby. The error is that God was already here, earthed, and has always been. God had long been seen in wise and holy people, in events that brought life and hope, and in the very creatures and matter of the earth. God did not live out in space and send an extra-terrestrial to Bethlehem. That’s in part what the great creedal debates of the 3rd century were about: was Jesus an alien or an earthling? And their conclusion, contrary to what some think, was not ‘both’, but an earthling manifesting the earthed God.
The provocative bit in that explanation of God coming to earth in the form of a baby is the baby. God is a baby? Really?? Gurgling, burping, pooing, puking, playing, chuckling, dependent, needy…. A baby is a long way from the Omni-God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, etcetera. The Omni-God is not vulnerable, whereas a baby is. This is the scandal of Christmas theology. God is incarnated in the weak and vulnerable, the little and the needy.
When we go looking for God, or truth, or light… don’t look at CEO’s and millionaires, sport’s or military heroes, or popular religious or political leaders… but go searching, like the three wise folk of Matthean mythology, in foreign places, in impure stables, among the poor and little, following the star in front of you.
I find it hard to believe that Jesus thought of himself as God incarnate. I think that was a label that his later groupies attached to him. Rather I think Jesus saw himself more as a sign pointing to his vision of God’s domain. So whether he was eating with the ‘sharks’ or the ‘minnows’, healing the losers and telling the winners they weren’t, or making up stories with disturbing twists… he was a sign, a sign-post.
His vision was simply that God’s domain – and ‘domain’ is a better English word than ‘kingdom’ that presupposes a ‘king’ – is firstly here among us. It’s not up in the sky after we die, or coming on a cloud down to earth to sort out the bad from the good. No, it’s already here among us.
Secondly, God’s domain is not what we expect. It’s topsy-turvy, counter-cultural. It’s where the first are last, and the last first; where the despised Samaritans can be heroes; where the ‘Mother of God’ is an unmarried impoverished teenage; and where messiahs reject power and it’s wealth, and embrace weakness and its costs.
And the tellers of the Christmas stories that evolved long after Jesus’ death were true to this vision of God’s domain.
I think the author of Luke’s Gospel understood incarnation theology better than most because in his narrative he does a whole compare-and-contrast thing with the prophet known as John the Baptiser. The point of that exercise was to underline the difference between what John and was pointing to and what Jesus was.
In Advent our Church calendar remembers John the Baptist. He believed that an avenging warrior messiah would come from the clouds with blade and fire to smite the Romans and establish the kingdom of God. A divine rescuer from off the planet would use retributive violence to establish justice.
Jesus didn’t share that belief. He didn’t believe in swords and fire and off the planet saviours. Rather he believed God’s domain was incarnated among us already, if only we had eyes to see.
How do oppressed people, like the 1st century Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine, react to overwhelming cultural, political and military domination? One way is simply to fight and lose, fight and lose, and fight and lose again. And many did. Each insurrection in Palestine was led by a messiah who blended religious, cultural, and political hopes.
Another response to domination was apocalyptic prophets. They simply announced the end was nigh for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly make mincemeat of the Roman invaders. Such prophets often formed large movements. John was one such prophet.
Drawing on the likes of Malachi, Ezekiel and Daniel, John had an avenging God, an axe-wielding forester who slashed and burned. This God had two categories, good and bad, and it was up to us to choose which side to sign up to, and then do it quickly, for ‘the Saviour’ was coming.
The references to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not references to water and desert. Rather they are pointers to the alleged historical and political works and words of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by conquest the Promised Land. John and others of his ilk were proposing a similar conquest or re-conquest of Israel.
John’s strategy was different from other apocalyptic prophets. He was forming a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web with end-time expectations, and a network of ticking time bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. These followers of John were to wait until the shining avenger arrived, and then they would join his army. Herod Antipas killed John for being a political threat rather than for upsetting his family.
In all likelihood Jesus was a disciple of John. He joined the John movement, and then later left it taking with him some of John’s adherents. The Christian tradition has long been uncomfortable about this. The ideas of John being superior, as a master is to a disciple, and Jesus repenting of his sins in John’s baptism, were disdainful. The New Testament authors rewrote the script trying to make John’s prophesies point to Jesus, and his baptism a commissioning by God not by John.
Yet it doesn’t wash. Any Sunday School graduate can read John’s prophesies and see the dissonance with Jesus’ mission and ministry. Whoever John was prophesying about it certainly wasn’t Jesus.
In the Advent season John the Baptiser is served up as part of a ‘get-ready-the-King-is-coming’ schema. The valleys and hills being filled and brought low are references to imperial road works, preparation before an army comes to town. The imagery is full of wrath and violence, winners and losers.
It is a stark contrast to that which is served up on Christmas day: a peasant baby, born illegitimate in a barn. No royal robes or crown adorned his head. No army, angelic or other, waited in the wings. As St Paul says ‘he came in the form of a slave’.[i] And that has been very difficult for the Church with all its aspirations for power and glory to swallow.
Realizing that Jesus didn’t fit John’s expectations, or the expectations of many in the nascent Church,[ii] a ‘second coming’ theology was developed. Mark and Matthew were influenced by the fear and politics of the 60s culminating in the Romans destroying the Jerusalem Temple in 70. In the midst of the turmoil they encouraged their fellow disciples with the hope that Jesus would literally come again. But this time he wouldn’t come as a suffering slave but as a conquering king. They still wanted the physical kingdom of Israel restored and for the disciples to be seated at King Jesus’ right or left controlling admission and favours.
Second coming theology is still unfortunately alive and well. Taken literally the ‘coming again in glorious majesty’ sentiments are more reflective of John’s theology than Jesus’. Taken metaphorically, as the well-known Advent hymns do, to refer to the triumph of Jesus’ vision they fail to use that vision’s non-hierarchal language and concepts. We would be better off without this theology.
Jesus did not follow where John’s theology was leading. Jesus did not want to wait for a future kingdom but to celebrate the divine domain here and now. That divine domain for Jesus was something already present, incarnate. It was also something to be celebrated because it embraced everyone – Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female, the sick and suffering, children… Everyone had equal and immediate access to God, anywhere and anytime. The brokerage system, having to go through priests and temples, elites and their procedures, to get admission to and favours from God, was obsolete. God was as close as your breathing, as close as the earth under your feet.
For Jesus the incarnation of God was not a royal or political kingdom such as the Israelites had under David and Solomon. The incarnation of God was not an apocalyptic creation with an external saviour. The incarnation of God was not something at the end of time when the bad would be punished, the good rewarded, and the saviour would rule.
Rather the incarnation of God was a set of relationships between people, and between people and the earthed/incarnate God. These relationships were political, social, and spiritual. This was a domain of nuisances and nobodies, of reversals and surprises, of grace. And it is among us; incarnate. This is the theology of Christmas.
[i] Philippians 2:7.
[ii] Acts 1:6b.