Shepherds

The Logic of the Incarnation

Christmas

Luke 2:1-14; John 1:1-14

“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”
John Chrysostom, 4th century

On Christmas Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On the first Sunday of Christmas (or, as it happens this year, Christmas Day) we read the prologue from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different perspectives on the coming of Christ into our world: Luke’s is earthy and political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history of the cosmos.

But despite the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence, between these two traditional Christmas narratives. And perhaps especially this year, as liturgically we read and hear them only hours apart, this affinity is worthy of deeper exploration.

In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.

We can miss this, of course, and often do – especially when we rush to the later, more palatable and more accessible passages of Luke’s narrative. The Christmas pageant version of verses 8 through 14, for instance, has long colonized our imagination, with toddlers in bathrobes and bed sheets, coat-hanger halos on their wee heads.

But as Dorothee Soelle once observed, “the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha.” The terror of the shepherds was real and, as those among the poorest of the poor, the glad tidings they received from the angels (in whatever form these heavenly messengers appeared to them) signaled
something of the radical politics of the infant king and his own future dealings, as one among the poorest of the poor, with the imperial powers.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel it is the elegant, enigmatic prose that grabs our attention. This is no infancy narrative; there is no whiff of cow stall or bed of hay, let alone any sign of social unrest or political intrigue. There is order and beauty and the masterful literary and rhetorical stroke of introducing the gospel by summoning the opening lines of Genesis (“In the beginning . . . “).

And there’s that word logos. The word that means “word.” “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” This Word is eternal with God, is creator of all things, and through him has come life and light (two of John’s favorite metaphors).

And then this: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Truer to the Greek is the sense that the Logos “pitched his tent with us.” This is as earthy and material as John gets in his prologue but it says everything about the divine logic that (re)orders creation: this Word is not abstract or arbitrary; it does not stay in the realm of metaphor. It longs – God longs – to be with us. A baby born in Palestine to parents on the run is the universe’s logic from the foundations of the world. There is no part of our creatureliness that this child will not share in.

“There, on the fringe of society,” writes Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Word became history, contingency, solidarity, and weakness.” That he pitched his tent among us suggests not only a desire for intimacy but a special affinity with the displaced and dispossessed, with migrants, refugees, deportees, detainees, “aliens” of all kinds — all men, women, and children, past, present, and future, in forced exile. (If we read the nativity narratives without the scandal of our current immigration crisis in mind we are missing something crucial about their significance).

Luke chapter 2 can easily be reduced to Christmas pageant nostalgia; John’s prologue can leave us bewildered by a form and formality hard to warm to. But together, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the full picture of salvation history comes into view: the familial and the philosophical; the provincial and the universal, the personal and the cosmic. And we find our place in a story that at once traverses the dusty roads of Nazareth and the farthest galaxies of the heavens. For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord: in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

5 Responses to “The Logic of the Incarnation”

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  1. Drex Morton says:

    Thanks Debra, for reminding us of the ethical implications of this Incarnation. Into the midst of the mess of our own making or through that foisted upon us by the powerful – through no fault of our own, Jesus has come to yoke with us and to lead us through the wildernesses of this life, reminding us all that we are never alone, and that we should each take the hand of the dispossessed and venture with that one with us on the inevitable journey here, there, and beyond, as people of both rest and restoration, hopeful in spite of our own hopelessness…

    • Debra Dean Murphy says:

      Thanks, Drex. Well-said yourself.

      • Elihu Carranza says:

        Given the title of you editorial, the logic you speak of would be better grasped, if you ask and answer the question, “What purpose is the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus?” Moreover, What happened to Jesus where we are, as a result of what he did, granted eternal life, together with the responsibility to other people. rich or poor?

        • Debra Dean Murphy says:

          Elihu – I guess I was thinking that Luke and John do the heavy lifting in terms of your questions: the Word is made flesh in Jesus to reveal God’s glory and to show us how we might be like God. (The “life” and “light” and “grace and truth” stuff; the purpose for which we were created, etc.). And from Luke we get that Jesus comes into the world in all its messy materiality and our salvation is not separate from that. Hope that helps a little.

  2. George Chapple says:

    When I read both passage they come to me in two different ways. In Luke, God interjects Himself in Christ ia a real and tangible way that is applicable with todays society. In essence the powerful oppressing the weak; Jesus brings salvation and peace to those who are suffering. Advent reminds us the “God is with us”, He is Emmanuel.
    In John I read the mystical, incomprehensible way that the supernatural interjects into the natural. John reminds me that God in Jesus surpasses my finite intellect. And it is by faith alone I can believe.

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