Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

Alright, it is in fact three nights before Christmas as I write this and neither am I about to retell Clement Clarke Moore’s unforgettable story, though I could add since I’m home alone this Christmas that noting is stirring in my house, not even Jake (my dog), who’s fast asleep dreaming of… food, I suspect.

What makes Christmas special, to Christians at least, is the mystery which is the incarnation:God becoming man, taking on human nature – not just a human body but a nature, body and soul – all the while remaining as much God (with all the properties of deity) as he ever was and shall be.

In Jesus Christ we the ultimate mystery: “two entire distinct natures and one person for ever.” In fact, I found myself unwittingly in the Sunday morning “Pastoral Prayer” citing from the Westminster Confession about the relationship of the divine and human natures being “without conversion, without conversion, without composition.” The memorable phrases come from the ancient Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451) and they are worth pondering for a few minutes.

It’s all too easy to focus on the baby Jesus lying the manger and manner and circumstances of his birth and miss the staggering fact that the baby was also the Creator of the world! I have no idea how much he weighed at birth, but guessing that he was under ten pounds, how in the world could such an entity have created everything that is? Little wonder that recent surveys among evangelical churches reveal a large number of professing Christians who do not in fact believe any such thing! The baby Jesus, after all, could not make so much as an egg let alone the entire cosmos in which we live. That is why it is necessary for Jesus to be both man (a baby in this instance) and God at the same time, and that neither nature be any less or more than it is meant to be.

It is possible that the ancient Church Fathers meant these phrases to be taken as synonyms (as the renowned Scottish theologian William Cunningham believed), in which case the error in view is one called Eutychianism after its principal exponent, Eutyches of Constantinople (c. 380-456). Eutyches taught that the human nature was overtaken by the divine, an understandable idea in the face of skeptics who could believe that a baby could be called God! It gave rise to pictures of Jesus in which a “halo” surrounds his head, distinguishing the child from any other baby before or since and, at the same time, removing him from any possibility of becoming our substitute – the book of Hebrews is at pains to point out that in order for Jesus to save he must be like us in every way, apart from sin – “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 2:17).

We could go on, but the point I am wanting to make is that there is profound mystery here: the Word, who was with God in the beginning and is God now and forever was also made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-2, 14).

1 comment:

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