All too often we speak of the incarnation as the action by which God sets his glory aside to embrace the shame that is the muck and dross of this world. No doubt, there’s some truth to that sentiment, though like many other things, there is something true in every half-truth.
What can go unnoticed, if we’re not careful, is that the incarnation represents the precise opposite in several extraordinary ways. Yes, the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lie vulnerable in a feed trough. But would you not want to hold that cloth and see that dirty manger? At his birth, Christ bestowed such banal items with astonishing honor. Not only so, he opens our eyes to see the many ways that glory imbues creation.
What do I mean by glory? While much could be said, and indeed has been said on the subject, I defer for now to the N. T. Wright. In his recent work Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World, Wright says that glory, as spoken of in the psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament, is
“anything and everything that reflects or embodies that strange, powerful, hard-to-pin down sense of something more, something greater, something more intimate than what you would get from a chemical or mathematical analysis.” (98)
This is precisely what John touches on when he opens his Gospel by saying,
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
These words are apocalyptic in nature. That word, “apocalypse,” stems from a Greek word meaning to “reveal” or “unveil.” The incarnation is the revelation of true honor and glory.
Rather than lament, “Poor Jesus. He had to wear this shameful flesh and blood like us,” we should rather be saying, “I had no idea that he thought so much of these bodies and this worldly abode our ours.”
At every turn in the Gospels, we see this idea given new expression. What we think is ordinary is anything but. We can imagine the litany of insults that must have informed Nathanael’s impression of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. A distorted perspective about what and where is worthy of honor or shame almost led to Nathanael missing out on heaven itself.
In John 1:45, we read this:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
As we look back at the narratives of Jesus’ birth, we find ourselves like Nathanael, nearly missing the spectacular ways that Christ’s incarnation reveals what is means to enjoy true honor. This honor is, as it were, of the only Son from the Father.
This will be the subject of the next post.
Born with Honor through Shame
The narratives surrounding Jesus’ birth make it abundantly apparent that we misjudge what and who deserve honor or shame. As I said in the previous post, the incarnation reveals the true nature of honor and glory. Today, I will highlight just a couple of examples.
Joseph’s Honor through Mary’s Shame
A good story builds to its climax. But for a first century reader, Matthew opens with what would seem like a challenge that would be the climactic obstacle in most any other story.
In Matthew 1, Joseph discovers that his fiancé has become pregnant, and he is not the father. We can almost hear Mary’s explanation falling on deaf ears, “But it’s from the Holy Spirit!” In the ancient world, like much of the Middle East today, Joseph’s honor would have been invested in Mary’s sexual purity. He feared the shame of marrying such a seemingly scandalous girl.
To defend his honor in the eyes of the community, he need only to repudiate her, casting upon her even more disgrace. Nevertheless, Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (1:19).
But grace doesn’t allow us to settle for a superficial assessment of things, and certainly not people. Joseph wants to have God’s perspective. Indeed, he gets it. And it’s much more than he bargained for. An angel appears to him in a dream, saying,
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
By entering into what most people would consider a “shameful situation,” Joseph discovers that he inherits a position of great honor ––stepfather to the king of kings!
Honor with Swaddling Shame
The threat of shame evokes different responses in different people. For Herod, he reacts with violence, attempting to eradicate anything to his honored position. Magi, wise teachers from the east, come to town looking for some other king of the Jews.
The perceived threat struck Herod (and those who leached off of his status) with fear. When troubled, he does what so many of us also do–– he behaved even more shamefully, digging himself into an even deeper hole. The scribes tell Herod where the Christ would be born. Matthew cites Micah as saying,
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Yes, Bethlehem was the home of David, Israel’s most honored king. But no one would be celebrating that fact before long. As we read in Matthew 2, the magi did not tell Herod about what they saw, a glory that surpassed his in Bethlehem. So, Herod “became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (2:16).
Herod’s deceit gave birth to death. At least he would retain his social standing. Little did he know that he embodied Israel shame. Matthew depicts Israel as a virtual “Egypt” with Herod as its “Pharaoh.” With shocking irony, Jesus flees for safety out of Israel to the land of Egypt (2:14-15), the precise opposite of what happen over a millennia before when Israel’s own sons were slaughtered by the murderous Pharaoh.
Honor was cloaked in suffering. Significance was swaddled in shame.
Before Jesus’ death brought life to the world, Christ’s birth meant death of numerous families. How many parents in Bethlehem felt utterly powerless when their kids were murdered by Herod’s soldiers? We’ll never know.
When speaking of the incarnation, many people turn to Philippians 2, and understandably so. Paul writes,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We should be careful not to overread the text. The point here is not that Christ became “less glorious.” Rather, the emphasis is on how he used the glorious status he had. As the true image of God, he manifest the humility that marks true honor and glory.
By contrast, just think for a moment about the ways that we use (or rather misuse) the glory, honor, status, and privilege that we have. I refer to our intellect, beauty, skill, power, positions of influence, relationships. Do we deny that we have much to contribute to the world because of the unceremonial origins of our birth? Our family’s scandalous past? Our helplessness against a ruthless system? Or, on the other hand, do we push people away (unlike Joseph with Mary) when we think they might weigh us down? Do we give into fear and contrive to eliminate perceived threats to our reputation?
The incarnation reminds us that honor and shame are not always found in the world as we might suppose.
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