Friday, December 24, 2010

Born of the Virgin Mary

A few brief reflections on the theological significance of the virgin birth...

1. The virgin birth indicates a really new thing. The thing in question is of course the incarnation. There is a decisive break here with everything that has gone before, and the virgin birth is a signpost to point us to that. It is a biological break in the chain of human existence which points to a spiritual (and therefore fleshly - the two are not as opposite as we think) breaking in to human existence. Christmas is about newness.

2. The virgin birth indicates the incapacity of humanity. Our salvation is not a latent possibility within humanity as such. It is not as if we were just waiting for the right one of us to come along. Just as Mary cannot, as a virgin, conceive, so we as a race cannot bring forth our own salvation. Christmas is about our hopelessness.

3. The virgin birth is God's contradiction of our impossibility. Simple fact is, the Saviour was one of us; Mary did conceive. Not because she was given any special ability, or was in some way prepared for this, but because her impossibility was overcome by God's great possibility. Christmas is about God's 'yes', which triumphs even in the face of all our 'no's.
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Thursday, December 16, 2010

God rest ye merry, gentlemen

The Incarnation demands great seriousness of us. Of course it does. If God is there, and much more so if God was here, then everything matters. If we don’t feel that deeply, I wonder if we have understood what it means that God was one of us.

But there is a flipside, which I suspect gets underplayed because it appears to stand in conflict with that seriousness and to undermine all serious efforts to live the Christian life. That flipside is that the Incarnation really does demand great levity of us. Let me explain what I mean.

If Christmas is true, which is to say if God really became one of us, walked with us, talked with us, died for us, rose for us (for all of this is encompassed in Christmas, at least in nuce) – if this is true, then it means that God himself has taken up our cause as lost and fallen creatures. His own arm has wrought salvation for him. He has acted on our behalf, and that action is decisive. In Christ, God is good to us; in Christ, we are the recipients of mercy. It is done.

So, all those burdens and anxieties that we carry around are, strictly speaking, no longer ours to carry. How can we have any ultimate concerns if God is for us in this way, if he has taken up our cause in this way? Our apparently legitimate concerns and our obviously unfaithful fears are equally taken out of our hands. He bears them. He is for us.

The Christian is a serious person. He knows that his actions and decisions have significance, that they take place in a world that is full of meaning. But there is also a lightness to the Christian, because he knows that his actions and decisions do not have ultimate significance. He knows that although he must walk, he is ultimately carried. And so his seriousness, which may express itself in serious sorrow and serious joy – and certainly serious resolution and action – as the occasion demands, will sometimes give way to laughter that can’t be controlled and a smile that goes beyond the circumstances.

Let nothing you dismay.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Waiting for Jesus

So much of the story of the Bible is about waiting for Jesus, in different ways and with different intensity.

Think about Abraham's wait for a son who would be heir to the promise; the prolongation of that wait, to the point where natural generation was more or less impossible, surely points to the long wait for The Son who was to come.  Consider Israel's wait in Egypt, praying for deliverance, and the raising up of a deliverer who is both within and without Israel; surely a type of Christ.  To be honest, think of the whole history of Israel, the whole story of the Old Testament, which is so powerfully summarised at the end of Psalm 130:  I wait for the Lord.  And of course, when Jesus comes, we see that the history of Israel had its meaning in that waiting, and that in so far as it was characterised by that waiting it was also the history of the world.

It is interesting that the New Testament also has a lot of waiting for Jesus.  It becomes the central prayer of the church - Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.  But even before that, there is the waiting for Pentecost, when Jesus comes to his people in his Spirit.  Always waiting for Jesus.

A couple of things about that:

1.  How is waiting for Jesus different from waiting for Godot?  In other words, doesn't the constant waiting tempt us to think that perhaps we are waiting in vain, for someone who isn't coming?  Well, of course we are tempted to think just like that.  But the key difference is that we know for whom we are waiting, and we have not offered him "a vague supplication" with no certain expectation of fulfilment.  The Crucified One is the Coming One, and vice versa, and we look to him for the restoration of all things because he himself is the restoration of all things, as demonstrated in his resurrection.

2.  What do we do in the meantime?  Obviously, we wait, and watch, and pray.  We long for his appearing.  But we also announce the Coming to anyone who will listen, because we know that it is not only us waiting.  The whole creation waits.  I take it that this includes all human beings, in so far as they are created, which is to say in so far as they are not utterly given over to the nothingness that is sin.  (And of course they are not utterly given over, for it is not given to them to destroy themselves).  Like Israel, we wait with knowledge in a world of ignorance; like Israel, we wait representatively for all the world.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Even if one rose from the dead

Here is an odd question for you: what would count as evidence that you were in the presence of God incarnate? What facts or occurrences would qualify as good rational grounds to conclude that this human being was also, in reality, God the Lord, creator of all things visible and invisible?

What things spring to mind?

Virgin birth - assuming that could be verified beyond a doubt, which I suppose it could nowadays?  Miracles - assuming that they were well-attested and we were sure there was no trickery involved?  Inspired teaching - assuming that it really did go beyond anything that anyone else had said?  Resurrection from the dead - assuming that this, too, could be verified absolutely, including a careful check that real death had occurred?

Or perhaps a cumulative case built up out of all the above?

Now, I have no interest in shaking anyone's faith.  But I do want to point out that, as far as I can tell, it would not be legitimate to draw the conclusion that I was in the presence of God incarnate from any of those things, or indeed all of them put together.  They are all remarkable, but frankly remarkable things do happen in the world.  Taken together, they certainly seem to point to the action of some higher power, but we know that there are many powers at work in the universe.

We are faced here with an epistemological problem.  What criteria could one apply to ascertain whether something absolutely unique had occurred?  And here we do mean 'absolutely unique'.  If God enters into his creation as a man, that is an event without parallel or analogue.  It is not just one of those remarkable things that happens from time to time, and that is why none of the remarkable things mentioned can be sufficient evidence of it.  Our categories of knowledge break down when we cannot compare an event with something similar, or at least something with which it stands in basic continuity.  But there is no immediate continuity between the incarnation of God and any other event in all creation, because there is no immediate continuity between God and his creation.  They are not in the same class of being.

Of course, it is necessary to our faith that all these things have actually happened and been true.  They are necessary, but not sufficient, reasons to trust that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour, as he is to the whole world.  But I think there is something significant in the fact that the most dazzlingly revelatory events - the Transfiguration, say, or indeed the resurrection itself - have deliberately very limited audiences.  And even those audiences contain doubters and deniers - think of the guards at the tomb, or the 'but some doubted' of Matthew 28.

So, what are we to say to this?

Firstly, I think there is something we can say about continuity.  The incarnation does stand in continuity with the history of Israel, or to be more precise (but less temporally straightforward) the history of Israel stands in continuity with the incarnation.  In the light of Israel's history, we can understand Jesus as the mighty God come to save his people.

But secondly, we must recognise that even this connection can only be seen if we are given eyes.  We can rehearse the evidences, the signposts that something extraordinary is happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  We can highlight the sense that he makes of Israel's history, and vice versa.  But ultimately, unless it is shown us - shown to each of us personally - we cannot see it.

Veni Creator Spiritus!