(Un)Carnation—Finding the Divine in the Man, Jesus

By J.C. Mitchell

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬‬‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for December is (Un)Carnation.

I have claimed to have a low Christology ever since seminary.  What that means has changed at times, but any good theology should not be carved in stone, and even when it is just ask Moses, it can be shattered.  When I say low Christology, I am referring to the importance of Jesus’ humanity, yet our scriptures are all written after Jesus walked the earth.  So we depend on scholars and especially those of the Jesus Seminar to shed light for us. Now there are some who think the Pauline writings are the most important to knowing the man Jesus because they were written the closest to his life, and others who dismiss Paul altogether because he did not know him.  There are those that see Jesus as a peace loving forgiving leader, and those that think he was a zealous revolutionist.  

Thus it is actually easier to for people to agree on Jesus the Christ as God, pre-existing, and still sitting at the right hand of the Father.  You can refer to the Nicene Creed as a great early example of Christians making a statement together about the divinity of Christ, and yes, that includes his humanity, but there does not seem to be an attempt of to create a concise statement of consensus about the man, Jesus of Nazareth.  We have generally moved to acknowledge he did not have blue eyes and a northern European complexion (but honestly I did meet those who still held onto that image when I served in ministry in rural America).  

So while there are great differences in Christianity, almost all Christians can still agree with the Nicene Creed, even if they define some of the terms differently or have a different understanding of its statements, for it deals with Jesus as part of the trinity, part of God: it deals with Jesus as God.  So why then do we celebrate the incarnation, as if it is the most important part of our year?  There are many reasons why in the 21st century we celebrate Christmas as the largest holiday, and as most of my readers will know, the popularity of Christmas can be traced to secular need of a celebration this time of year that could be nominally associated with one’s religion, as these people were themselves only nominally associated with the church.  This escalated in the 19th century with a poem, The Visit from Saint Nicolas, and a book, A Christmas Carol; snowballed with merchants to the holidays we have now.  I am not cynical, for I love Christmas, the secular extension of Thanksgiving to New Year’s, while also wary of the capitalists’ take on this celebration in the dark, awaiting the light (but we are offered lights to buy).  

However, Christmas has become something so huge and I am aware the celebration is not really of the incarnation, but rather the birth of a Divine King.  This is truly why the birth narratives were included, so that one would not follow the Gnostics who could not understand, believe, and/or accept that Jesus was a person.  The incarnation: Jesus the man, the son, the carpenter, the preacher, the healer, the man that walked in Nazareth to Jerusalem, is what I ponder when I hear him called Emmanuel, God with us.  Advent and Christmas have let me down in such exploration.  During Ordinary Time we explore the ministry of Jesus, but when we look at the feast that celebrates the Incarnation, it is about a baby king, which was bowed to by shepherds and magi, to demonstrate his divinity.   Even those who understand the meaning of Advent will be exploring the return of the Christ, not the incarnation.

To explore the Incarnation, to explore the answer to WWJD, to explore Jesus of Nazareth the man, will not result in an easy creed Christians can agree.  However, what I have observed when one does explore the humanity of Jesus, they must depend on anthropology as well as other disciplines.  The anthropological exploration of theology helps remove the human violence and fear of death from the Divinely Inspired message of love and life.  When we search for the historical Jesus, we depend on anthropological methods to set the scene, and thus it becomes clear what is cultural and of human origin in scriptures, and what is written that has been influenced by the Divine.  This is an essential part of our theology, for when the scriptures are read with the 21st century mindset, we project our own culture upon the scriptures.  Written in such a different time, in very different languages, they were also written in styles we struggle to understand.  However, when we search for Jesus the man, we must grapple with the huge cultural differences that are reflected in the scriptures and see the greater truth, what I would term “God.”

So even if we cannot unearth 8mm film of Jesus or his own memoirs, we must search for this man who is also divine, and in doing so create awareness that humanity has interwoven its fear and violence, with God’s call of love and life, into religion, including Christianity.  So while I will celebrate Christmas in all its forms, I will continue to search for the man Jesus to help me to see the Divine in the world.