St John the Evangelist’s Day, 27 December
So the Word became flesh; he came to dwell among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. John 1 v14
The defining tenet of historic Christianity is that God was uniquely incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who is therefore to be thought of as part of the Godhead. Its other main doctrines are paralleled in other religions; Incarnation is what makes Christianity doctrinally distinct, so anyone who wants to make sense of Christianity today has to make sense of Incarnation and its connection with virgin birth.
Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the biblical sources of these ideas. The earliest New Testament author, Paul, is content to think of Jesus as the son of a human father; as he writes in his letter to the Romans, the summation of his new Christian religion, ‘on the human level, [Jesus] was born of David’s stock, but on the level of the spirit – the Holy Spirit – he was declared Son of God by a mighty act in that he rose from the dead’. So for him, it’s resurrection not an alleged virgin birth that makes Jesus the son of God. Paul may have based this idea the common Roman practice of an emperor adopting a young man to be his ‘son’ and heir; a year or so before Romans was written, the emperor Claudius had adopted Nero in this way. A few decades later, Matthew and Luke go a big step further and make Jesus’s mother, humanly speaking, a virgin, like the mothers of ancient legendary heroes, allowing paternal input to be miraculously attributed to the Holy Spirit of God. Committed as he is to his Jewish heritage, Matthew presents Jesus’s virgin birth as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a ‘virgin’ will give birth to ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘God-is-with-us’, ignoring the fact that the Hebrew word he renders as ‘virgin’, alma, means more generally ‘a young woman’. But, like Paul, he also wants Jesus to be descended from King David and therefore gives a long list of David’s descendants, ending not with Mary but with her supposedly sexually inactive fiancé Joseph, so if Matthew’s Jesus is the ‘Son’ of David, he isn’t the Son of God, and vice versa. John, in the famous Christmas gospel written a century after Jesus’s birth, doesn’t refer to virgin birth, but accounts for Jesus’s greatness in two other ways: he is the embodiment of the God’s Logos, or Word, and is ‘God’s only Son’. Both these ideas seem to have been borrowed from the Hellenistic world: Logos is a concept rooted in Hellenistic thought, and it was the Hellenistic world that accounted for the achievements of Alexander the Great by seeing him as the ‘Son of [the god] Zeus-Ammon’. John is closer to Jesus’s own thinking, as expressed in the Our Father prayer, when he suggests that people could become ‘children of God, not born of any human stock, or by the fleshly desire of a human father, but the offspring of God himself’; for John, this outcome was to be achieved by recognising in Jesus the Logos of God, and by learning from him.
Some people do passionately believe that Jesus of Nazareth was literally the God-out-there in human form, and that half his genes literally had a non-human origin. I’m not sure we can even give such ideas any real meaning, and many serious people simply cannot begin to believe statements that have no meaning for them; I am one of them. That simple statement saves me the trouble of struggling to make literal sense of the various strands of mystical incarnational thought, with all the contradictions and obfuscations that theologians have promulgated and puzzled over down the Christian centuries. But it shouldn’t prevent us thinking about what the idea of Incarnation might have to say to us that might be illuminating even now.
According to the first version of the creation myth in Genesis, after creating all other life-forms, ‘God created man [that is: humanity] in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created him.’ We are not, on this view, just another kind of animal, driven only by animal instincts and wholly understandable by ethologists; there is something special about us that distinguishes us from all other animals and for which ‘divine’ is as good a word as any. Genesis suggests that this divinity was in us from the start, that in some sense all human beings have this divinity about them. John’s rather different suggestion is that our divinity comes upon us in the course of time as a result of our recognising Logos among us. It’s not easy to characterise exactly what ancient writers meant by ‘the Logos’, but it certainly carries a sense of the power, beauty and order of the universe. So it is, John seems to suggest, our ability to feel Awe and to grasp Truth that gives us our divinity, that makes us a unique species; and as far as he is concerned it was through the teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth that this ability was decisively developed. He also sees Jesus as embodying not only truth but also ‘grace’; the Greek word he uses here, charis, has the same root as the Latin caritas, ‘charity’ or ‘love’. So for John, Jesus can somehow put us in touch with the trinity of Awe, Love and Truth, and so make us children of God.
If we have had the good fortune to have been introduced to a way of living that has enabled and encouraged us to feel Awe, to think and act with Love, and to seek Truth, perhaps we might reasonably say that the ‘divine’ potential that Genesis says we had from the start has been brought to fruition, that we have become, in John’s terminology, ‘the offspring of God himself’. And whoever it is who introduces us to this way of living will be as special to us as Jesus of Nazareth was for the New Testament writers. They spoke of this specialness in a language of Incarnation that I cannot share; but Jesus’s sayings suggest that he wasn’t interested in what people said about him, but in whether they grasped what he was on about and allowed it to inform their approach to life. What matters is not whether you believe the God-out-there was incarnated in Jesus. What matters is whether the commitment to Awe, to Love and to Truth is incarnated in you, and whether the light that enlightens lives is visible in the person you are becoming.