The Myth (Truth) of the Incarnation
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur
If there is one thing that many scripture scholars ask us to remember today it is that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are metaphors. They are poetry and a variety of other literary genre designed to convey truths without which the authors believed we would not live so humanly and humanely as we might. In the case of Jews and Christians, their stories, our stories were designed to remind us of our calling by God to be God’s light to the world.
These stories are not historical as much as we would like them to be. History as we know it today is a nineteenth century phenomenon. The stories by and large are myths. This does not mean that they are untrue, but that they contain a truth. (The easy way to remember this is the last two letters of the words my th and tru th.) The Jews were not abstract, philosophical thinkers. They told stories to make their points. They recited poetry. They incorporated fables and sagas from the people around them. The Jewish Jesus did the same thing. So did those who wrote their testaments to and about Jesus.
The original hearers of these stories, both Jewish and Christian, would have understood exactly what they meant, the truths they referred to, the points they wanted to bring home. Now, centuries later, we need keys to their understanding much as we need keys to understand Shakespeare! Divinely inspired or not, the scriptures are not what they appear to be at first sight but if we take the time to plumb their depths, to understand their spirit, we have an incredibly rich treasure at our disposal. Let me try to make my point about the Infancy Narratives in the Christian Scriptures in particular.
We need to remember that the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who knew their scriptures inside out. At the age of three a boy began to memorize them even as Orthodox Jewish boys do today. At the time of Jesus the Jewish prophets in particular were in the minds and hearts and on the mouths of Jews living under an occupying power, many of them slaves in their own land, longing for a deliverer, a messiah who would free them from the bonds of their horrendous poverty of body, mind, and spirit. With those prophecies in mind, and believing Jesus to be that messiah, the authors of the Christian testament plug Jesus in as it were, to the Jewish Scriptures, to make clear who he is and what he is about. We need also to remember that Infancy Narratives appear only in Matthew and Luke and not the other gospels.
Jesus, whose very name means “God Saves”, is born in Bethlehem . Was he really? Who knows! Bethlehem means “House of Bread” and it was an oasis on the fringe of the desert in Israel . Bethlehem meant food and drink and respite from the harshness of the desert. Yes, so the hearer of this story would know immediately that Jesus is food, meat, and drink for the ones who live his way. He is the oasis of life.
Jesus is born in a stable, not an inn. An inn was a lodging place for foreigners, peoples traveling through the country. Jesus is one of Israel ’s own, a “landsmann”, so to speak, a native son of the soil, born in conditions familiar to the bulk of his own people. He is from the House of David, born in David’s own city of Bethlehem , as the prophecy about the messiah goes. As David’s heir, his place is legitimate among his people. He is God’s acceptable “mouthpiece”, and will be both prophet and king, authentic messiah.
Who are his first visitors? They are thugs. Yes, the shepherds were thugs, thieves, anti-social and a-social beings who were often required to live on the fringes of their people. They were not trusted. They were in many cases despised. It is to them that God’s message comes first of all, to thugs, outcasts, If you know tribal peoples well, you know that they have no identity apart from their community. To be sent from that community to live a life of solitude with only sheep as companions was the ultimate punishment. It is to them that Jesus is first identified in the myth as the oasis, the place of homecoming, the ending of their despised state. Like David before them, the shepherds learn that they do not have to have been eternally good to make good things happen. This is so because the God of Jesus is Lover and Friend, and not Enforcer. This is a God who welcomes all, even the most destitute and those who are least likely to be forgiven by their society at large. Those who are hurting, those who are outcasts, and those who are despised have a special need for Jesus and see in him their redemption, the story says. Do we need look any further than to our own pearl fishers at the time of Francis Xavier to see the validity of this point for all ages, all times and all places?
Even the ox and the ass have their role in the story. How are those who hear the story to know that this work in Jesus is truly of God? The ox is the symbol of God’s sustenance of the Jewish people. “Strong as an ox” is the presence of God in all that Jesus will be about.
The baby is in a manger which is a trough for food for their animals which the shepherds well understand. Jesus is their sustenance and God has made the ongoing sustenance of the people possible through and in Jesus. God takes ownership of the event also in the symbol of the donkey. Even today, in modern Israel , the donkey is the indispensable beast of burden for the poorest of the poor. It makes its sure-footed way among excavations helping in the removal of rocks and debris. It grazes along with sheep and goats, in the most inaccessible areas. Jesus will make his sure-footed way among people thought unworthy of and even inaccessible to God’s gifts. He will be a special kind of “beast of burden”, but owned and sustained by God.
Then, of course, there is the story of the Magi from the East. What better way to make clear that Jesus is a universal saviour? He is not simply an oasis, a way of life for the Jews, the author of this story claims. His way of life is for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to love. Again and again Jesus himself is reported as saying that he has come for the people of Israel , his own people, not to destroy the Torah, but to fulfill it. But later thinking, especially under the influence of Paul, decides that this is not enough. The whole of humanity needs Jesus.
What then about the story of the Holy Innocents and of the Flight into Egypt ? Does it take much for anyone today who looks at a news story and sees the plight of child solders who are trying to return to their families to miss the point of how greed and lust for power hurts the innocent among us? Look at the AIDS orphans and tell me that your heart does not break over the greed of politicians who will not spend the money needed for the cocktail that will save their lives or at least increase their length. Think of the greed of pharmaceutical companies – and thank God that Indian manufacturers are not among them – who are charging prices for these drugs that prohibit the purchase of them by the poorest of the poor so desperately in need of them.
Yes, the innocent of all ages suffer, but especially the future generations, when those who are in political, social, or economic leadership positions put their own interests ahead of their peoples’ needs and wants. The Jesus way of life asks for anything but.
What then about the Incarnation itself, about Jesus’ being truly human and truly divine? It took our church four hundred years to make these declarations and the implications of this are still with us. What were those closest to Jesus trying to say? Remember they had the Torah for their guideline as did Jesus himself. Some Jews interpreted their scriptures rigidly and some in more elastic ways. Jesus was among the latter.
These Jews closest to Jesus concluded that Jesus was a living, walking, breathing Torah. He was a Jew’s Jew. If you wanted to see the reign of God alive and well among them then you had only to look at Jesus. Jesus for them was the human face of God, the truth of God, God among them.
Remember that the first followers of Jesus expected his imminent return to lead them into a full life this side of death. They believed that because they were Jews and that was their tradition about the messiah. When that did not happen, they had to rethink. They came to the conclusion, especially with Luke’s insights, that what Jesus thought, taught, and wrought in his time and place, was to continue, with his help, in every time and place throughout the ages of life on earth. That was construed as the mission of the institution that would eventually come to bear Jesus’ name when it separated from its Jewish mother.
When the baby grows up, he will assure others, in John’s version of his life, that he has come that all might have life and have it in abundance. That is the reminder of Christmas and of the Incarnation. If we say we follow Jesus, then we must be committed to secure life in all its abundance for all of creation.
And the rub is that the securing of this abundant life is ours or it will never happen. It was Jesus who reminded us that we would do greater things than he himself had done. The question is, do we really believe that? Do we believe that God has no hands but ours, no heart but ours, no mind but ours, no ears but ours, no eyes but ours? If we do not see, listen to, and empower the poorest of our poor and be empowered by them, Christmas and the Incarnation mean nothing. If we do not work in our time and our place to end poverty of body, mind, and spirit, as Jesus did in his, do we understand that Christmas and Incarnation have no meaning?
Sobering thoughts on a day meant for a special celebration? As I said previously, that baby does grow up!