The God in the Manger

At my wife’s suggestion, I recently dug up a little piece of “creative writing” I did a few years ago for Doug Jones’s Theology of the Body class. It’s a rewrite of a crucial section from Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, and although I’m not terribly fond of anything I wrote three years ago (and struck by how foreign the writing style is!), I hope it still makes for a fun and edifying Christmas meditation.

 

No more cows gurgling out their last breaths as their blood stains the marble altars. No more oxen led forth to the slaughter, dismembered to feed the god. The god is in the manger now, where the oxen come to feed.

The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids slew their cows to appease that fireball in the sky and that lazy channel of brown water which sprawled across their sandy land. But not content with these lofty objects of devotion, they groveled on marble floors before their sacred cats or fish goddesses.

To their credit, many of these Egyptian idols were perhaps alive. What about the pagans of Palestine, who worshipped little clay idols or poles stuck in the ground? The Sidonians did homage to their favorite statue, Molech, by heating his iron hands red-hot and then bringing him an offering far more beautiful than any cow or pigeon. A young infant without blemish was carried into the slaughterhouse of the god so that the idol too could have a chance to hold the lovely child. The onlookers watched in religious ecstasy while the sounds of the baby’s screams mixed with the bacon-like sizzle of its smooth skin on the fiery iron. Perhaps the god liked the smell of bacon.

But at least they combined a healthy dose of masochism with their sadism. No one can accuse the priests of Baal with lack of religious fervour, dancing around in a drunken frenzy, lopping off bits of their flabby bodies and pouring out their blood on the parched earth in an impassioned plea for their god to pour out fire for them.

But the rational Greeks, in their clean white clothes and clean white temples with their nude white statues, surely their minds were set on things above? Hypocrites. They philosophized about the Good while their white temples ran red with the blood of bulls sacrificed to a serial rapist who turned his conquests into cows or shrubs. His brother was little better, kidnapping his niece to be his mistress in the Land of the Dead, and only turning her loose for a few months each year to make the flowers bloom and inspire nature with new life.

To all these pious pagans, blinded by their earthward gaze, God presented an image they could not ignore. God took on sinews, his veins ran with blood, and the earth which He had formed from nothing he now formed into Himself. Creation which had served as idols for the sons of men now took its proper place to serve the Son of Man. The flaming sun quenched its rays and put on robes of black to mourn his death; life-giving water poured from his side to baptize the nations, while two small fish, torn into a thousand basketfuls of morsels, fed his faint disciples. For him, too, a pole is stuck in the ground, a prop on which to hang his bloodied flesh. Infants are brought before Christ too, but he welcomes them with open arms, not greedy hands, and marks them as his own with water, not fire. Christ also is bundled off to Hades, but his return brings new life for a springtime that never ends.

 

This is the Incarnation, the Christmas story. This is God bringing himself down to our level. Infinite spirit becomes a lump of dirt, sleeps in straw, rides an ass, eats crusty bread with bunch of convicts and converts it into excrement, pours out blood, tears, toil and sweat so that the blinded, self-satisfied, juvenile inhabitants of this terrestrial ball might get the message. Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image made in the form of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed animals and creeping things—beetles, cats, vultures, or sacred cows. So he gave them what they wanted: an image made in the form of corruptible man, water, wine, and crusty bread.

 

The Incarnation is part of God’s lesson plan, an unforgettable object lesson that God, the great teacher, uses to teach the lazy ignorant pupils of this world about his glory. The fire-filled heavens and the wine-dark sea, in all their majestic expanse, fell short of teaching men the glory of the Lord. The revolution of the seasons, with their riot of fruit trees and flowers, the amber waves of grain and the vineyards heavy with grapes could not convince them of God’s providential care. So God at last taught them Himself, face to face, in the form of a lowly carpenter from Galilee, a carpenter who holds the Pleiades in his hand.

While Christ walked and talked, ate and drank, slept, wept, or prayed, Christ also upheld the universe, governed the tides, beheld all the works of men, and spoke face to face with his Father. For the human flesh of Jesus that housed a human soul also housed the eternal Word. In Christ infinite and finite, heaven and earth came together, so that Christ was at once bounded in human flesh and also bounded all the universe within himself.

Unravel this paradox, please. When Christ asked the crowds clustering around him, “Who touched me?” didn’t he already know? When he lifted a cup of water to his mouth, was he not already upholding that cup and sustaining the life-giving power of the water within it? When he looked up to see his disciples coming towards him, did he not already behold with his divine vision all men upon earth? Christ forfeited none of these powers when he clothed them with skin, bones, and hair, yet he lived among us as one of us.

When he wished to build a table, he used his hands and shaped the wood with human tools. When he wished to speak, his lips and tongue formed his breath into the guttural consonants of Hebrew and Aramaic. When he wished to die, he bled, he gasped, he hung his head and went cold like countless millions before him. Somehow Christ sacrificed neither his heavenly power nor his earthy weakness, but dwelt both beyond his body and within it. No piece of his divine power was chipped away when he became man, nor was there any stain of weakness on it. No, it was the other way around. Man was made strong, human flesh was purified by contact with the eternal Word. The sun does not cease to shine in the darkness, but makes the gloom bright with its rays. So the presence of God himself illumined all the world and all mankind with its glorious rays.

 

So then in his human body, Christ did the works of a man, eating, sleeping, talking and breathing as any other man, so that there could be no question over whether he was truly enfleshed. The Gnostics, then, and all such heretics, must not have read the Gospel accounts, with their talk of Christ’s thirst and hunger, his touch and his spit, his blood and his sweat. Yet because this flesh was the home of God himself, its works were far more than merely human works. It was like a sponge soaked in Godness, ready to pour forth the works of divinity at any moment. And so these two hands sutured a severed ear with no stitches or superglue, returned the light of creation into darkened eye-sockets without the use of any lasers, endlessly replicated the molecules of five pieces of bread and two small fish, and transformed H2O into grape-flavored C2H6O, without a centrifuge or any laboratory rats. When Christ’s vocal cords vibrated, they probably made about the same sound that he heard when Peter’s vibrated. But Christ’s breath had the power to halt the fierce breath of the tempest, to recall breath to lifeless lungs, and to banish the spirits who held a young boy in bondage. By their fruits you shall know them, Christ himself said, but who ever saw a tree like his? The leaves and bark were man’s, but the fruit was that of God himself.

Thus the invisible God shined through the shell of human flesh and human life, as through a veil, making known the presence of God in man and among men.

 

The sun-browned Nile-dwellers in the kingdom of the pyramids may have watched for millennia for proof that their pharaohs were sons of the gods, but it only took the centurion a few hours to whisper in wonder, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

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