Tuesday, December 17, 2013

                                             Just Like Me

                                  Little Jesus wast Thou shy
                                  Once and just as small as I?
                                  And what did it feel to be
                                  Out of Heaven and just like me?

                                         -Francis Thompson

The Incarnation "is the central miracle asserted by Christians," C. S. Lewis said. "They say that God became Man." This is not myth or legend. It happened though it can scarcely be imagined. "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us" (John 1:14).

Matthew and Luke explain the process in terms of a virgin birth, or more accurately, a virgin conception, for Jesus' birth was normal in almost every way that matters. It was his conception that was unique: Mary was his mother, but he had no human father. As the old text puts it, Mary "had known no man." This was the virgin conception. (Not to be confused with the "Immaculate Conception," the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was free from original sin, or the "Immaculate Reception," a Franco Harris catch in a play-off game against Oakland in 1972.)

Mary herself was concerned with this question, for nothing in the Old Testament necessarily led to the expectation that the Messiah would be virgin born: "How can this be?" she asked the angel, who then explained, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:34, 35).

This is mystery. Once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with long line of descendents. With his naked hand he touched Mary and made a tiny child that was...well, himself. "The Father became the daughter's son" (John Donne).

How can this be? I do not know. All I can say is what the first writers said: the child was "conceived by the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20). This was inexplicable then as now, and yet was acceptable, a staunch belief enshrined in the earliest creeds. Today it stands at the heart of our faith.

But does it matter? Of course it does. "All this took place," Matthew informs us, "to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel'-which means (Matthew translates), 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:23).

This is an answer to the question that plagues us from time to time: Does God care? Does disease, pain, infirmity, handicap and death overwhelm him as much as it does us? Does God weep? Does it matter to him that little children, who have nothing to do with the evil in this world, so often suffer and die? Dostoyevsky's cynic, Ivan, asks of human suffering, "What do the children have to do with it? Does God give a rip?

One answer is the Incarnation, the birth of the God-Man, for in him God entered fully into our suffering. Pain was his lot in the slow ascent from a struggling, kicking embryo to an utterly dependent baby; through gangling, awkward adolescent to become "the man of sorrows." Through all, he was "acquainted with grief." "In all our afflictions he was afflicted." He understands. He cares.

Dorothy Sayers says it far better than I: "For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is-limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death-He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When He was a man, He played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile."

Jesus' conception, though one of a kind, is timelessly typical of what is eternally true of God. He "never undoes anything but evil, never does good to undo it again. The union between God and (human) nature in the person of Christ admits no divorce. He will not go out of nature again..."  (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 123). He is, and has always been, Immanuel: "God with us: so much unlike us and yet so much like us. Thus he understands and cares.


No comments:

Hunky-Dory? Life is not always "hunky-dory," as David Bowie and my father would say. Jesus agrees: "I did not come to br...