I’ve been reading a little of the French philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion who has written, amongst other things, a book called God Without Being. You may remember the existential theologians who sought to harmonise the existentialism of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and company with orthodox Christian thought. John McQuarrie, a Scottish theologian, was in vogue when I was reading at Knox. McQuarrie talked about God not as a being, but as Being itself. You will remember too, the Exodus words describing Moses’ experience of the divine – ‘I am who I am’; or better ‘I will be/becoming who I will be/becoming’. The latter translation picks up the movement (‘becoming’) in this concept of divinity.
Jean-Luc Marion though is sceptical of attempts to domesticate God by means of reason and being (what could be called the ‘idol’ of God). Rather he talks about the divine movement as excessive, over-the-top love (what could be called the ‘icon’ of God).
The difference between an idol and an icon, to be simplistic, is that the former (idol) has fixed boundaries of structure, reason, and potency. The latter, the icon, as the mystics would have described them, is a window into the boundless extravagance of the divine. And of course an idol can become an icon, and vice versa. Love, when fixed with rules and cultural expectations, can become an idol; rather than an icon/doorway of trust, intimacy, and vulnerability leading into mystery, wonder, and otherness. Jesus, when set in the concrete of literalism and supernatural powers, can become an idol; rather than an icon/doorway of weakness, connectivity, and compassion leading into mystery, wonder, and otherness.
Idols can de-power us. They merely want our allegiance. Icons can empower us. They invite us into possibility, including our own transformation.
I mention Jean-Luc Marion not as a preface to talking about philosophical theology, but as a preface to talking about Christmas.
When the word ‘incarnation’ is mentioned in most churches or hymns it is interpreted literally as ‘God sending his (sic) Son to earth in the form of a baby’. Such a statement presupposes a flat earth, with God living upstairs, sending a fertilised egg down into Mary’s womb in order to be born, grow, die, be resurrected, and then ascend back upstairs. Such a literal interpretation makes the incarnation a nonsensical fairy-tale.
However, if we use some of Marion’s categories: God as excessive love, Jesus as an icon into this divine extravagant love, and the strength/weakness of unconditional gift; and lay these over the birth stories we might get a clearer idea of what incarnation might be.
The birth stories were written late (though they include some very early material, like the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis). Luke and Matthew didn’t start writing their gospels at chapter 1, verse 1. They brought various writings and stories together, refashioned them, reordered them, and probably wrote or attached the refashioned birth stories just prior to completion of the whole. Those birth stories were to serve as an overture, an introduction, picking up themes one would find if one kept on reading the entire gospel.
Or put another way, think of the birth narratives as composed to honour the adult Jesus (and remember he’s dead when these texts are written) by creating stories that weave together what his followers in the late first and early 2nd century considered were important to him (and to them too).
Over the next few weeks I will explore this further. Today I just want to say a few things about weakness. Weakness is, counter to logical thinking, a sign, a mark, an icon into God.
The birth stories send out a message something like this: ‘There is strength in weakness. There is hope in weakness. So seek it out, and trust that you will be led into the wonder and mystery of god.’
The point of these birth stories is not to tell history (for there is very little history being recounted here) but to tell about the god revealed in the adult Jesus – and the vehicle for this telling is creative story-telling.
First of all these stories are about a baby - a baby who, in these texts, has no supernatural powers, no nose to twinkle and move objects around. This baby, like all babies, is very dependent, weak, and vulnerable.
In the manger scene, despite what we might see on Christmas cards or in nativity sets, there are no angels, no supernatural guardians. And the natural guardians are also pretty weak and vulnerable:
We have an unwed mother and her fiancé. Joseph is a tekton (Mark 6:3) a day labourer, a wood worker, who belonged to the lowest class of peasants (just above beggars and slaves). Tekton were uneducated and illiterate (it’s estimated that 97% of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write). It is fair to assume that Mary was similarly of this class and education status. So Jesus’ parents do not have money, they do not have a wealthy patron, their affluence and influence is negligible.
They also, more importantly, are not surrounded by family. They are far from their home. Though Joseph is meant to have ancestral connections in Bethlehem these don’t materialize in the form of helpful people to take them in, provide food and support, help with the birth, help with the baby, etcetera. The strange guests who appear in the story don’t fill these supporting roles either.
In Matthew’s gospel this little family become refugees, and seek asylum in Egypt. The lack of influence, weakness, and vulnerability of many refugees and asylum seekers today is mirrored in this story of the incarnation of God.
Note, like the reference to Bethlehem, the whole Egypt episode is historically highly unlikely. But rather than ignore it as therefore some sort of distortion of the truth, embrace it as something the author is trying to tell us about the adult Jesus. Like, for example, Jesus and his family knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land, with few resources.
Throughout the birth stories there is a message about weakness. The lead character in Luke’s gospel is Mary. A scandalous woman: unmarried and pregnant! The place of the birth is a ritually defiled barn. Again, religiously scandalous. The support cast is a group of animals. The visitors are young, petty criminals and foreign outsiders (read: probably enemy) of another faith. What is going on?? The angels send messages. They don’t provide a protection detail, or throw a baby shower and bring presents, or book a new room in a birthing suite, or provide transport. Instead the angels could be real visitors in and from the dream world.
There is an upside-down, topsy-turvy, reversal of normative expectations happening here. This baby is meant to be the new king, messiah and saviour. But he’s weak, surrounded by weakness, and weaklings. Just like Jesus was as an adult. The conclusion is that he will not succeed regardless of the choir singing about the mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted.
What does all this weakness and vulnerability mean? For some Christians this weakness just means that we need to rely on a big strong God who will rescue and save us. Mary and Jesus, so they would argue, found their strength by trusting in this big strong God and then, miraculously, overcoming the odds of the bad hand dealt to them by poverty and powerlessness.
I would frame it differently. God is not big and strong, in the way Caesar was big and strong, or in the way that strength and power (political, financial, militarily) is usually thought about – namely the ability to persuade, to cause events to happen, to determine and create structures, to acquire resources and allocate them without much accountability. All that strength and power is not the type of strength and power of God seen through the icon of Jesus’ birth stories, or indeed through the stories of the adult Jesus.
The type of God seen through Jesus is so different I struggle to use that name ‘God’. Indeed I think it’s helpful if we are to continue to use the word G-o-d to use a lower case ‘g’. The lower case god (what I think of as an energy or connectivity of transformative love) showers blessing on outsiders – weak people, unmarried mothers, refugees, foreigners, those of other faiths, petty crims… Such blessings, or grace if you like, is given unconditionally. Such blessings are not earnt by good deeds, or good faith, or good family or moral associations. The shepherds, for example, are never portrayed as being of great personal faith. The Magi have no concept of the Hebrew God.
All this I would suggest points to the thinking and experience of god not as a being or being but excessive love given without conditions. The strength of this god is the power of transformative love. And that love is extravagant, crossing the borders of morality, gender, religion, and culture. Its strength therefore is what many consider weakness. This god, like the icon Jesus, is weak. To follow Jesus is to walk this path of excessive transformative love revealed in weakness with the vulnerable, the outsiders, and the powerless of our world.