By Leonard Jayawardena –
Rise up and resist Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and other (perceived) acts of injustice or oppression in the world in general to fully realize the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus (as understood by me)!
That is the thrust of the “Christmas Reflection” of the Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera titled “O Little Town Of Bethlehem, How Still We See Thee Lie…The Hopes And Fears Of All The Years Are Met In Thee Tonight” (Colombo Telegraph, 23 December).
The Bishop’s article starts with a statement typical of a Christmas seasonal article with his own politico-theological twist added: “The unseen God emptied himself to become human in the form of Jesus [in Bethlehem], so that humans could hear and know God best through the idiom of the human, and rise to a fully integrated life. The festival that commemorates this historical self-giving act of God taking flesh, known as the incarnation, is Christmas.”
The term “incarnation,” which is derived from an ecclesiastical Latin verb denoting “to make into/to be made flesh,” means in traditional Christian theology the embodiment of the second person of a triune God (consisting of God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit) in human flesh as Jesus Christ while remaining completely both God and man. The verb itself does not occur in the Latin Bible (Vulgate) but the term is drawn primarily from the Latin of the Gospel of John 1:14 (et Verbum caro factum est), which translates into “and the Word was made flesh.”
“Word” refers back to the opening verse of the prologue to this Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The referent of “Word” is clearly Jesus as the following verses show. Elsewhere in the New Testament (hereafter NT for short) Jesus is called “the Word of God” (book of Revelation, ch. 19). The term “word” or an equivalent expression such as “the word of God” is a technical term for the Christian Gospel in the NT and, as the message of the Gospel boils down to a spiritual victory through Christ, the appellation “the word” or “word of God” is attached to Jesus himself. According to the teaching of the NT, this spiritual victory is achieved by “the glory of God” that indwelt Jesus and then in the (first century) NT Church. The fourth Gospel (as does the rest of the NT) understands this “glory of God” to be His moral excellence or wisdom and identifies Jesus with the (moral) wisdom of God of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, which is said to have existed with God from the beginning before the creation of the world (Proverbs 8:22ff). The opening verse of the fourth Gospel (traditionally attributed to the apostle John) combines Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and Proverbs 8:22ff to teach the preexistence of Jesus as the impersonal wisdom of God. It is this impersonal wisdom of God which is said to have become flesh in the historical Jesus. Several declarations of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels reveal his self-awareness as the wisdom of God and the apostle Paul explicitly calls Jesus “the wisdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 1:24. A number of other NT allusions to the wisdom of God of the book of Proverbs in connection with Jesus again confirm the true nature of his preexistence and incarnation. The moral glory of God is equated with His divine nature or character, which explains the words “the Word was God.”
The self-emptying of Jesus referred to by the Bishop is technically called the kenosis in Christian theology, from a Greek word that occurs in the relevant passage in Paul’s epistle to the Philippians (2:5ff). There Paul says that Jesus, “being in the form of God,” that is, having the divine nature, putting aside self-interest and self-ambition, emptied and humbled himself by becoming a servant and being obedient to God unto death as befitted his station as a human. To Paul, the subject of this kenosis is not a pre-existent second person of a triune God, but the historical Jesus. He goes on to say that God rewarded Jesus for his obedience by exalting him to be worshipped as Lord (meaning “master”).
Contrary to the position of “orthodox” Christianity, the NT consistently presents Jesus as just a man with his divinity being limited only to the manifestation of the divine nature in his life and death. He was not ontologically God, there being only one God subsisting in one person, not three. There are precedents in the Old Testament scriptures for humans and angels being called gods in the sense of representing God in some manner. Thus there is no compelling reason to understand Jesus’ divinity in any sense other than representative and qualitative. There is extensive attestation to his humanity in the NT. The Gospels report that, as a helpless newborn child, he needed to be protected from a cruel despot seeking to kill him. He grew in wisdom. He ate, slept, experienced human emotions just like other men and, in the end, he died. He referred to himself as a man and his only understanding of his own divinity is revealed in these words that he spoke to the apostle Philip when he asked Jesus to show him the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
It is customary in writings touching on the incarnation to mention the unbiblical doctrine of salvation through a substitutionary atonement as one of its purposes. According to this doctrine, widely held in Christendom, Jesus died as a substitute to pay the penalty due for the sins of mankind, which is death. There is a double transfer: God transfers (or imputes) mankind’s sins upon Jesus as he hangs on the cross and his righteousness is transferred (or imputed) to them, resulting in them being declared righteous upon acceptance of the sacrificial death of Jesus as atonement for their sins. But the New Testament sees the death of Jesus as exemplary and inspirational, an instrument for bringing about reconciliation between God and men alienated from Him due to sin (defined in the NT as the transgression of God’s [moral] law) through the reforming and purifying effect the death of Christ, the perfect man, has on the heart of the sinner. He is the pioneer of Christian salvation, one who blazed a spiritual trail for his believers to follow.
The Bishop’s soteriology of the incarnation is that of liberation theology: the kingdom of God is brought about by pursuing the liberation of the poor and (perceived) oppressed. Not for him is the salvation of the soul, the liberation of the individual from the bondage and oppression of sin, a word never once mentioned in his article. His Messiah (Hebrew word for ‘Christ’) is political, not spiritual. Before the birth of Jesus, an angelic messenger instructed Joseph, the foster father-to-be of Jesus, that he should be so named because he would “deliver his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Throughout his ministry, to the rich and poor alike Jesus preached only a message of spiritual victory through liberation from their sins. The Bishop preaches resistance, but Christ preached patient endurance! In his Sermon on the Mount, he commanded his followers to “not resist him who is evil, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” And “whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two,” whence we get our expression “go the extra mile.” He also said, “Love your enemies,” the “enemies” being the national enemies of his day, the Romans, who were occupying Israel. He clearly taught pacifism and non-violence. The predominant Jewish concept of the Messiah in Jesus’ day, shared initially also by his disciples, was a deliverer of the people of Israel from political oppression. The Gospels record an instance when Jesus rejected the Jews’ efforts to make him their (political) king by force. When Jesus’ disciples proclaimed his Gospel throughout the Roman empire, it included no political dimension.
In the view of the Bible, the real problem with the world is not political or economic injustice and oppression but human sin (immorality in all its forms), which cuts across all classes of society and is the root cause of much human unhappiness. The rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, all need to be cured of it. Repent! is the message running through the pages of the NT and the call goes out to all. How much sin is a great leveller in the view of the Bible is seen in the description of Jesus’ enemies gathered against him at the great (metaphorical) eschatological battle of chapter 19 of the book of Revelation. They include “kings,” “commanders, “mighty men” and “all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great.”
A Christian’s vocation does not require him to espouse political causes, including those mentioned by the Bishop (Palestinians, Rohingyas, Tamils). To do so in the name of Christ is to do a great disservice to him. The Bishop would see those who do not share his political zeal as “passive perpetrators.” These issues are complex any way and what guarantee do we have that we would be in the right if we championed one side or the other? If Christ was alive today on earth, two things would be certain. One, he would not take sides on any of the political issues the Bishop mentions in his article and, two, he would say to one and all, “Repent!”