Christianity: The Basics -- Incarnation, Pt 1: God speaks
In the fifth article in this series, Fr Peter introduces the doctrine of the Incarnation by distinguishing between God speaking to creation and speaking through it.
In many and various ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but now, in the last days, he has spoken to us in his Son. (Hebrews 1.1-2)
There are many verses of scripture which we could use to introduce the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the teaching that, in Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter a person both divine and human. The verse I have chosen begins the Letter to the Hebrews.
In many different ways in times past, God spoke to our forefathers, the writer tells us. We find that past recorded in the Old Testament. The Word of God is something alive and active which itself gives life to that which is created. God spoke, and it was done. The Word of the Lord is creative, it brings life where there was nothing. The Word of the Lord comes to the prophets and fills them, and manifests itself in what they say but also in what they do. The Word and the acts of God should not be separated: what God says and what God does both tell us of the God of Israel who has visited and redeemed his people.
However, speech is only comprehensible if I understand its context. If I hold up this white sheet and say “paper”, you might think it obvious. But if you had never heard the word “paper” before, how would you know I meant this sheet, and didn’t mean to convey the idea “white” or “rectangular”? I need to know where to place speech, in what context it belongs. If I want to know the meaning of the word “evolution” I will do better looking in a biology lab than I will looking on a football pitch.
God’s speech is another matter. We might think we know what we’re dealing with, we might try to pin the activity of God down on an altar, or in a building, on a Sunday, but in all of these attempts we are mistaken, because God will not be restricted. God is always active, always speaking. We see this in the Old Testament. But these words, this speech, is partial. Snatches heard here and there by those who would listen. So the problem remains. If I can only make sense of words in context, how will I ever be able to hear the word of God? The answer, according to scripture, is that God speaks his word in the form of a person, a person who is none other than the Son of God the Father almighty.
In many and various ways, God spoke to our ancestors of old. But now he has spoken to us in a son. Jesus’s being a son is a dominant theme of the New Testament, but the early Christians were concerned to point out what this didn’t mean as well as what it did. Did it mean, perhaps, that Jesus was some sort of angelic creature in human form? No. Being a Son is something different altogether, according to the writer of Hebrews. Did it mean that Jesus was adopted by the Father as a response to the wonderful life that he lived; did he achieve sonship through his holiness and obedience? No, because that sort of sonship – in which terms the Kings of Israel are often described – suggests nothing of the intimacy with the Father which we see in Jesus. It suggests instead that Jesus was just another very holy prophet. Did sonship mean that Jesus was some sort of conquering hero, fighting battles and returning victorious from military triumph? No. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus refuses to be called anything other than Son of Man until he has reached his lowest point – betrayal, arrest, abandonment and condemnation. It is when he sees him die that the centurion calls him Son of God.
The early Christians, in fact, insisted on two remarkable claims about Jesus as the Son of God. The first of these, is the strange idea that Jesus Christ existed before he was born. Pre-existence, scholars call this, and you will find it all over the New Testament: the beginning of John’s gospel, in Paul who refers to Jesus having been “in the form of God”, in Hebrews which from I’ve been quoting, to name a few. Several times, the gospel writers report Jesus doing and saying things which the Old Testament shows to be the prerogative of the Lord himself, the God of Israel.
Secondly, and slightly later in the story, Christians came to insist that Jesus, the Son, was of the same substance, of the same stuff as the Father. To say that the Son was co-eternal with the Father did seem strange to many, but to others it was strangely necessary to argue that God had united himself, his own substance, with humanity in order to transform it, in order to reveal, in the context of a human life, what true life, eternal life, divine life, really was. The creed uses the phrase “begotten, not made” because the relationship of father to son, as well as spelling out the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, also comes as close as possible to expressing that inexpressible idea of both being the same and being different: the Son is God, the Father is God, the Son is not the Father but originates from him not as one who had a beginning, but as one who cannot exist without the other.
Remaining on the outside, God could speak to his creation. By entering into it, God can speak through his creation. The person of Jesus Christ is the person of God speaking, the living out in humanity the divine life which God has been communicating from the first. The context is your life and mine, the very humanity which we all share, the life of weakness and selfishness which is all too familiar, the life of trying so hard and yet failing, the life of wanting to be so much better than we seem able to be. This is the medium of God’s speech, and here, to quote something from the sixties, the medium is precisely the message.