Wednesday, 24 December 2008

A Christmas message

At the heart of the most holy, uncreated God, there is an image of humanness.
"Well", a sceptic might say, "there's no surprise there! When human beings imagine their gods, of course they imagine them in human form." But be careful! Christians, Jews and Muslims know perfectly well that any god that we can imagine — that is, create an image of in our minds — is not, cannot be, the most holy, uncreated God.

For a few 1st century Jews to have come to believe that there is real human-ness at the heart of the divine was a shocking thing, and it is one reason why the first church became separated from its Jewish roots. But those first Christians didn't sort of 'work out' that there is humanness at the heart of God. Nor was it wishful thinking. Their encounter with Jesus led them to believe that God had revealed it to them. And although there is much that is myth-like about the Christmas story, they couldn't have made it up unless their experience of 'divine humanity' in Jesus had led them to it.

We live in an age where people aren't much into gods. We don't think about them, don't believe in them. Spirits maybe, but not gods. So we can turn out easy slogans that 'Jesus is God' lazily without realising what an impossible mystery that is. It's because we're not terribly interested in divinity, actually. But we do live in an age when people in the West are becoming increasingly uncertain about what it means to be human — a full human being. Does it mean having lots of money and sex? Does it mean looking good? Does it mean having hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook? Or does it mean needing nobody, being self-sufficient? Does it mean having the right to take your own life when you think you've had enough? What does it mean to be fully human, exactly?

I don't think many of us really know what being fully human involves. Most of our lives are lived in the shallow end of the swimming pool of life. I think very few people really get into the deep end of what being human is about. It's a bit scary there, when you can't touch the bottom. But it's in the deep end of life that human-ness is found to be divine, 'eternal'. And there, deep human-ness takes the form of timeless, selfless love. If it isn't there deep down (even though it may be hidden) we've lost our humanity.

Most of the time these hidden depths of the real fully-human soul are hidden from us. We're wrapped in the swaddling-bands of our compulsions : our urge to succeed, to be loved, to be forgiven, to be recognised, to be strong, to be someone. There's nothing particularly wrong with all that, although it's when that stuff is all there is that human beings become most horrible. The trouble is that all that neediness hides the deep humanity — the Jesus-like, divine humanity — beneath.

That divine humanity deep down doesn't yearn to be loved : it knows it already is. It doesn't need recognition from other people : it knows its name is already listed among the saints of God. It doesn't need to be strong : its power is in its total, utter humility. It doesn't need to be someone : it knows it is Someone's. And therefore our divine, deep humanity is effortlessly selfless and timeless.

Christmas is called the Feast of the Incarnation. Incarnation means God becoming flesh, the divine becoming human. Christian rulers turned incarnation into a doctrine — a theory, a belief test a Christian had to pass. But it isn't a theory, really. It's a task for us — a challenge. The Christmas challenge is to reach past our need to be recognised, to be forgiven, our need to succeed, to be strong, to be self-sufficient — our need to feel the comforting bottom of the pool of shallow life with our toes, and instead to push further out into life where we no longer need those things, because we are relying solely on the love of God to keep us afloat.
That's the Christmas challenge.

But the Christmas assurance is that deep in our humanity there really is a God of selfless and timeless love, born to set his people free.