January 04, 2004

Playing Fair

Most uncharacteristically, I didn't post anything about the meaning of Christmas this year. As it happens, I was too busy celebrating; and by New Year's, I'd moved on to other things. Still, better late than never.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth--that is, the Incarnation--of our lord Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be both fully God and fully Man. This is rather a shocking statement. The Creator of the entire universe, of all that we can see and more that (through distance or simple inability) we can't, a being of a higher kind of reality than ours, suffered Himself to be born as an infant.

Christianity is not the first religion to claim that that the Godhead has become incarnate as a human being, of course--but the Christian claims are unusual for a number of reasons.

The first point is that we know when and where, historically, Christ was born; his birth is a matter of fact rather than remote legend, and even those who dispute his divinity do not dispute his place in history.

The second (and to me more interesting) point is that Christ behaved most peculiarly for an incarnate deity--he never used his divine powers for his own benefit, but only for others. He healed many people; he fed the five-thousand; he turned water into wine, but reluctantly, and only because it was his mother who asked; he walked on the water, but only as a sign to his disciples; and finally, he rose from the dead that we might live.

Contrast this with what he could have done, and didn't. When he was hungry in the desert, he didn't turn the stones into bread. When he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemene, he didn't blast the soldiers where they stood, or call upon a host of angels to drive them away. When he was hanging on the cross, he remained there until he died.

Some will object, "Yes, but that just shows that Christ was merely human; if he were divine, he'd have done something about it. Those other miracles never happened, but were inserted into the record by overzealous believers."

That's a fair point, and yet I don't believe it holds water. One of the glories of the Bible is that the heroes of the Bible are not whitewashed--all of their faults are on display. This applies to both the Old and New Testaments, to Moses, David, and Solomon as to Peter and Paul. If the Gospels are read objectively, it's clear that their authors weren't trying to whitewash anyone or to sensationalize any event; if they were, they'd have done a much better job of it. Even then it was clear that Christ was unusual, and far from suppressing the fact the Gospel accounts emphasize it.

Christ limited himself in this way because he was called to be "a man like us in all things but sin." Christ was sent to redeem us, and to show us the way to heaven--to show us how Man, unstained by sin, could walk with God and so come to life eternal. And to that end, Christ had to be a man--in short, he had to play fair, to show that the thing could be done without resort to divine power.

The rest of us, alas, are not unstained by sin, and so are unable to walk with God on our own strength--we need Christ's aid. But that's a story for another holiday.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 4, 2004 08:38 AM