The Manger and the Cross
Where, asks Rosalind Selby, is the enfleshment of the Son of God to be most inclusively understood?
Many (perhaps most) Christmas sermons across the western world will offer congregations the good news that Jesus was born, in human flesh amongst an oppressed people and in the meanest of circumstances, a true sharer in our human lives.
We are used to the message that challenges us to look beyond the glitter and tinsel and massive spending sprees (or at least the pressure to engage in them) to the reality of the manger. It’s a message that also encourages us to understand the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as the poorest imaginable: No room; an animal trough for a bed; visited by marginalised shepherds; parents who gave the least acceptable sacrifice of “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24).
This is good news: good news that our flesh is shared, that our human lot is experienced, that Jesus lived and ministered amongst the poorest and the outcast.
I now wonder if there might be a big “but”.
There is a poster on the notice board at my local church. I have not managed to track down its source, but if you Google “poster if you have food” you will find it on the internet in full. The opening words are in bold:
If you have food (in your fridge) – we assume that Mary had sufficient nourishment for herself and she was able to breastfeed Jesus
… clothes on your back – “wrapped him in bands of cloth” (Luke 2:7)
… a roof over your head – was Jesus born in a stable? In a “grotto” under the now Church of the Nativity? In a house where the family stayed temporarily?
… and a place to sleep – “and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7)
… you are richer than 75% of the world.
I don’t know if the figures are precisely correct, but I am sure we are talking of vast numbers and proportions. The poster reminded me of an ecumenical colleague who had ministered amongst refugees in Africa and whose Christmas Day talk one year brought a different challenge. In summary, he said: “Jesus at least had a roof over his head and a bed, of sorts, to sleep in”, and the poster reminds me of the question that raised for me – how does the coming of the baby who was the Son of God speak the word of good news to those whose reality is even crueller than that of Jesus?
This is not the first time this sort of question has been asked. One of the early Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nazianzus (a Fourth Century bishop), said: “The unassumed is the unhealed” – meaning (I hope I summarise appropriately), had Jesus not become a human being (assumed human flesh), he could not have healed or redeemed human beings. Feminists have sometimes felt challenged by the phrase, asking how a male saviour can be effective for women since it was not woman’s flesh Jesus took. That’s not a debate I wish to enter into here; I merely point out that the question is not a new one: if Jesus did not share an aspect of our humanity, then how is the incarnation meaningful for that aspect of our humanity?
And so I ask: What difference does it make that Jesus was better off than 75 per cent of those alive in the world today? The thought is new to me, and I say honestly that I am rattled by it. I have no idea how I would begin to construct a Christmas sermon in a refugee camp. We talk of millions and use rather impersonal language – but every single one of that number is an individual human being, whose flesh Jesus assumed. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have no roof and no bed – at best, canvas cover. Tens of thousands have fled from ethnic cleansing, natural disasters, war, torture – each an individual story of pain and horror. From whom can these children of God even beg when whole communities have nothing? The realities for refugees are brutal – starvation, rape, further violence and violation, parents watching children die.
In 1984, Michael Buerk showed the world the scale of starvation in Ethiopia, and Band Aid sang “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” I breastfed a baby from a body overflowing with milk and watched on the news a starving woman with shrivelled breasts and nothing to give to her child – she saw her baby die because her body “failed”, because the earth’s harvest had failed, because the world had failed her.
What did Jesus and his earthly family know of this? Matthew tells us Jesus fled from persecution, but he did not suffer for that – others did. Is there a message of “Christmas time at all”, of incarnation, of a deeply humble sharing in the human experience for the 75 per cent who are worse off than Jesus?
I do not have an easy answer. Perhaps it is a question to which any answer would be so unspeakably glib that it is better not to speak it at all. I find I can only frame the question in a way that makes any theological or even human sense to me, by turning a mind’s eye upon Jesus at his Passion.
Theologically, Christmas needs Easter, and Easter needs Christmas as we put into words our understanding of the Son of God who came amongst us and who died for us. They make sense of one another. But that’s not where I’m struggling to find my way – I’m wondering whether the enfleshment of the Son of God is to be understood most inclusively in the body of the little baby whose life was one of relative privilege, or whether there is a depth to our understanding of enfleshment in the Passion of Christ that has yet something more to show us.
Many could not bear to watch the level of violence portrayed in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and yet it represented the reality of the cruelty wrought upon the bodies of thousands. No longer is there plentiful milk, baby clothes, shelter or crib which, humble as they were, place Jesus amongst the most privileged. In the Passion we are used to contemplating our salvation and responding with gratitude, perhaps with horror, perhaps profoundly moved to tears. But I find I finish by asking if this human body that suffered all the violence of Good Friday – this scourged, bloodied, thorn-scraped, nail-pierced, thirst-wracked, exhausted and spent body – is the only place where 75 per cent of the world might look upon the enfleshment of the Son of God and know that their lives have been assumed, and that their wounds might be healed. Is the incarnation most inclusively understood on the cross rather than in the manger?
The Revd Dr Rosalind Selby is principal of Northern College in Manchester – a United Reformed Church Resource Centre for Learning
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.