Today is the last day of Christmas. I realise the rest of the world has likely moved on, but it’s still that time of reflection on the incarnation of the Word of God (not that we have to stop after today, though). Over the past few days, I have been thinking about how the incarnation has been distorted by nativity plays and some Christmas carols (in particular, “Away in a Manger”). During December, I ran across a digital nativity play created by some children in Australia, which was very nice, but one part stuck out to me. The narrator said something to the effect, ‘And he didn’t cry at all because he was Jesus.’ This theology talks about a Jesus who could not have been a human child with too heavy emphasis on the divine. It’s taken straight from “Away in a Manger”, not anything scripture has told us.
It is only in the last few years I have realised how distorted my own thinking has been about who Jesus was with regard to his divinity. Growing up in the American evangelicalism that I did, I remember the emphasis being much more on the divinity of Jesus. (I think this was an overreaction to ‘liberal’ theology that saw Jesus little more than a good guy, but denied his divinity.) In this context, “Away in a Manger” never struck me as odd because I can remember thinking that it made sense – God as a baby wouldn’t have been scared by cows and wouldn’t have cried.
If we say we believe in the Council of Chalcedon’s statement that Jesus is truly divine and truly human, then what do we make of the truly human part? This was sadly neglected in Sunday School and church while growing up. It probably wasn’t until seminary before I even gave it much thought. What does it mean by saying God took on flesh? Does it mean that, like Clark Kent, he is still Superman just beneath the drab disguise and goofy attitude? I think that is how I imagined it for a long time – Jesus was God with a ‘skin suit’ on, but could rip off his outer clothes at any point. The problem with that is Clark Kent was never fully human. In this scenario, neither would be Jesus.
Instead, a fully human Jesus, as Charles Wesley wrote, ‘Emptied Himself of all but love’ (a favourite theme of his, echoing the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2). God became vulnerable. God took a risk. God limited himself to what a human can do. He had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to have a relationship. He had to be taught Torah – the very deeds the Gospel of John says he accomplished! How all of this works out – the creator of the universe having to learn to walk and talk – is the mystery we celebrate at Christmas, but seems to get little press next to the ‘big’ miracle – the virgin birth!
Many of my readers will already know I see a lot of Christian themes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and I find myself able to reflect on the Christian mysteries deeper in some of her stories. One that always stands out to me is the end of chapter 1 in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid leave Harry Potter on his aunt and uncle’s doorstop. The absolute vulnerability of little Harry, even after escaping the most evil dark wizard of all time, comes out as Dumbledore leaves him.
“Good luck, Harry,” [Dumbledore] murmured. He turned on his heel and with a swish of his cloak, he was gone.
A breeze ruffled the neat hedges of Privet Drive, which lay silent and tidy under the inky sky, the very last place you would expect astonishing things to happen. Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as she opened the front door to put out the milk bottles, nor that he would spend the next few weeks being prodded and pinched by his cousin Dudley…. He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices:”To HarryPotter–the boy who lived!”
Analogies can be pushed too far, of course, but I do like the sense in which God may not have said ‘good luck’ to Jesus, but I can only imagine there was a feeling of ‘holding your breath’ as the plan comes to birth, whilst in heaven and out of view angels raised their glasses to Jesus. I think we miss out if we see Jesus as having some sort of bubble around him, fully aware of who he is at 4 years old. Rather, we have a Jesus who grew up not really knowing he was special or famous – he grew up like any other ordinary boy. I think we have to see in this story, as we read the Harry Potter stories, a chance for failure, even as we know the end. Not just in at Jesus’ birth, but in the Garden where Mark portrays a Jesus coming dangerously close to chucking everything away and going at it on his own.
The incarnation – fully human, fully divine – is a mystery. If we hold no wonder at what’s going on but have it all sown up with a superman Jesus, that takes the mystery out of it. Likely, that takes God out of it, too.