Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The “Why” of Christ’s Coming

Immersed in some pressing responsibilities, I have been away from blogging for the last month.  Now, as those tasks subside, time has passed, and with it the season.  Epiphany is nearly over, and shortly we will enter the fast-time of Lent.  First, however, some thoughts about what we have been shown in the Light of the Epiphany season.  HHM

Epiphany draws to a close in a spectacular revelation on a mountaintop.  Christ is come!  His glory shines forth: it is the essential, startling proclamation.  Always in the present tense.  Always now.  Yesterday now, today now, tomorrow now.  The very nature of the world is changed, because the Creator is entered into the life of the creation.  That which was from the beginning enters the scene, and the scene is forever changed: what was old is made new; what is, and what will be, is imbued with Eternity.  Things are outwardly the same, but in the depths everything is changed.

C.S. Lewis called the movement of God into history “The Grand Miracle.”  God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; That which is beyond our ability to imagine, creates a door into our world and, using the very biological processes of the world, enters to take up residence.  Of necessity we speak in pictures and metaphors; the poets capture it better, more exactly, than the scientists.  The whats and hows elude our prideful analysis, and yet the outcome, the life of Jesus, enables us to see with crystal clarity the nature of the God Who made us.  As John A.T. Robinson put it, in Jesus we see the human face of God.

Stunning as the Grand Miracle is in itself, even more stunning is the utter simplicity of the words in which the Creed explains God's purpose: “For us and for our salvation.”  Which is the greater wonder, that God should become incarnate within the creation, or that the incarnation should be for the rescue of one of the creatures?  Is it more miraculous that the Creator of the universe should create a way to enter the universe, or that this same Creator has a specific interest in your destiny and mine? 

The word “salvation” has as its root the Greek word Soteria, meaning, “rescue.”  It is the word the Greeks would use to describe the action of liberating a prisoner of war.  We would use it to describe throwing a life preserver to a drowning person.  Soteria, and its English equivalent, “Salvation,” connote that the persons being rescued cannot get out of danger unaided.  Therefore, for us to require salvation, we must be in a dangerous situation from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  What situation is that?

It is the condition of the world.  We are all aware of individuals who commit personal acts of inhumanity to others.  Any 20th or 21st century man or woman who does not understand that something is profoundly wrong with the human race has been asleep.  We see instances of it all around us.  The newspapers and broadcast media feed on such incidents.  We hear about them from family, friends and coworkers.  In varying degrees and frequency we even participate in such acts: from gossip about neighbors to the slander of public figures; from the personal grudge to the crime of murder; from the social snub of those individuals we arrogantly consider our inferiors, to the oppression of whole ethnic groups; from paying back personal slights to national declarations of war.  To one degree or another all of us participate.  None of us is blameless.

The Biblical view of human nature is that these acts of inhumanity have been going on since the very dawn of history.  In the very beginning our earliest forebears sought to be like gods, and the result was that they became less than human.  Made to walk in fellowship with God, they chose instead to compete with God, and they did it at one another’s expense.

Over the centuries human behavior became so twisted that we did not even acknowledge the wrongness of some acts, and became adept at rationalizing even the actions we knew to be wrong.  Endowed with intelligence, and with the capacity to love, we can see clearly that the way we too often follow leads to spiritual death.  Try as we might, we found ourselves in the predicament St. Paul described so well: knowing the good, yet doing the wrong.  And we, with Paul, threw up our hands, crying out for someone to show us how: “So I find it to be true that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand...Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21,24)

It is into such a world, to such people as us, that Christians believe God organized a rescue mission.  Seeing a planet in turmoil, and a human race fallen, and drowning, in a sea of repeating acts of inhumanity, God chose to step into the scene, and become the bridge to dry land.

How was this rescue to be effected?  Early in each Gospel we meet the striking figure of John the Baptist.  Rough and even uncouth, clothed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey, breathing fire against the sins of the day, John is a sort of advance man, who prepares the crowds for Jesus.  He proclaims that he is not the bearer of salvation, merely the Herald.  He tells them to get ready to receive the One who will forgive their sins.

Christ's mission, which John announces, is a radical mission.  The forgiveness that he announces is something many persons distrust.  Most of us have the suspicion, at some level that we are going to have to buy our forgiveness.  After all, that’s the way the world operates.

Many persons fear God, not in the sense of being over-awed by the power and enormity of Divinity, but fearing that something in their character, or life, is so bad that they can never be accepted by God.  There’s even some evidence in Scripture that John had some of these fears.  After he was imprisoned, John became worried that Jesus wasn’t doing all the things he thought he ought to be doing.  Finally he sent word by one of his students, asking Jesus if he really was the Messiah, and if he was, why he didn't have more to show for it.

John had trouble understanding the ways by which Jesus brought salvation, and if Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, why wasn’t he moving against the wicked and the oppressors?  And what we, to this day, have trouble understanding: how Christ’s coming breaks down the walls separating men and women from God, or moves the world closer to the new world for which we long.  In the coming of Jesus we meet the only person in history who has the right to judge anyone.  And he comes offering not condemnation, but forgiveness to everyone who will acknowledge that they need it, and will accept his guidance in forgiving those from whom they are estranged.

There is sound psychology behind this.  Jesus understood that we are not fit to love one another until we have learned to love ourselves, and we will not learn to love ourselves until we accept ourselves as we are.  He also understood that the key to accepting ourselves is in knowing that God accepts us, for that to happen we must know ourselves forgiven of all the sins, which stand between God and ourselves.  God chose to impart this knowledge by becoming one of us, and so the Grand Miracle occurred, and Jesus was born.  The Eternal Word, that was from before the beginning, became flesh, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son.  Jesus came in that way for us, and for our salvation, and ultimately for the healing of our broken world.

Howard MacMullen
© February, 2013

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