The Logic of the Incarnation on Christmas Day

Wednesday, December 25, 2013 - 7:12am

The Logic of the Incarnation on Christmas Day

“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 (2:1-20). On Christmas Day, we read the prologue from John’s gospel (1:1-14).

At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different perspectives on the coming of Christ into the 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. 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 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.”

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).

Chapter 2 of Luke's gospel 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.


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Debra Dean Murphy

is associate professor of Religious Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs about books, movies, music, art, politics — and how religion intersects all of these arenas — at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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I think the commentary here is Oversimplified because there were 4 gospels writers and their versions vary on the events. I recommend reading Elaine Pagels book _ The Origin of Satan _ which goes over the politics of the time of Jesus trial and crucifixion.

Solo scripture can get you in trouble. The bible is the highest authority. You need a church to intrepret the meaning of the bible read as a whole.

We don't even know who wrote the gospels. They are unauthored. We only have copies of copies of copies of copies and on and on. Much has been redacted. We don't know who wrote most of the "bible." The "bible" has so many ethical, moral, geologic, biologic , medical, and historic problems that it is overwhelming. Lets talk about realty, not folklore. There were many gospels.

How can it be that a professor, a scholar - a person, one would presume, at the highest level of education in their subject matter - can write about these bible stories as if they truly happened while even laymen are aware that corroboration outside of the bible, e.g. archeology and history ranges from scant to none? Not to mention "angels" or "heavenly messengers" for which no evidence (that a "scholar" ought deem acceptable) has ever been provided.

I think because whether the story is true or not is irrelevant.

Stacey: A number of us can believe because we have experienced a vision or some other contact with a spiritual being, even though we have scientific training, and even though we might have been non-believers or skeptics ourselves.

Don't we all, the Atheist, Jew, Muslim, and Christian alike, know what betrayal, loss, and love are? Do we have to prove a story to be true to know these facts of life to be true? Let's understand what the author is saying at the heart of her article, that the story of Jesus is a living story representing the voice of the poorest among us, and not use her academic standing against her and also against the problems people face this day in age.

Anonymous: Murphy says that God is "the creator of all things" and that on this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord is born. Maybe I'm wrong too but she does seems to present this as a true story. That's fine but she is not just an average person posting a comment. She is an academic and a specialist. Don't academics have a duty to be exact, factual and true? Isn't it part of academics to ask and be asked questions?

Do you honestly believe this story would be given all this attention and seen as so important if it was not believed true?

I have come to a similar conclusion. I read a book some time ago by Stephen Mitchell, the great Jewish scholar of ancient texts--sorry I do not remember the title, nor do I remember exactly what he said, but here is the gist of what I took away: there is no historical proof that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This "fact" was likely added centuries later to convince the jews that Jesus was the foretold prophet, which would be born in Bethlehem. There is no historical proof that King Herod killed all male children under the age of two or that ever such an order had been given. The list goes on and on. Job was not a real person., even though we love to think of him as such. The bible is full of symbolism, parables, mysticism, traditions and beliefs. Stories are told to make a certain point.
We know that Jesus was an exceptional human being. Was he the son of God? I assume he was the son of God like we all are children of God, Spirit, Universe, whatever one wants to call the Infinite. Do I cherish the stories of the bible any less because of this interpretation? No. I just do not see them as historical facts.

Well, thanks for sharing your reflections on Christmas. In my opinion, these all are not stories embedded in a book or an imagination of someone. Jesus, Bethlehem and people's sufferings, Satan are all true and very hurtful. The books simply aware us of the facts and in the Christmas Eve we celebrate the birth of our great lord Jesus and we should respect him and Bible. I personally read many books on this Eve and satisfied with the way of writing.