Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Sidebar Note on the Incarnation

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:8-12)

This is not a "Christmas Season" post. I haven't even bought a Thanksgiving turkey yet, and in my estimation it's still too early to think about what we traditionally associate with Christmas. I would, however, like to comment on a certain aspect of the humility of Christ's coming to earth that is easy to miss...

Even while there is no one more powerful and mighty than the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no one more humble. Philippians 2:6 makes this point well, reminding us that Jesus, although God Incarnate, did not consider His deity a "thing to be grasped", but rather condescended to come to earth as a human...and to serve His own creatures. The gentle humblesness exhibited by our own Lord and Savior is an attribute we acknowledge and strive to emulate, but often take for granted. It can fail to "wow" us. But when you really think on some details of Christ's incarnation and earthly ministry, sometimes the lengths He went to in His humiliation are just stunning. No; I'm not talking about the fact He washed Judas' feet before dying a horrible death on the Cross, although those moments are the pinacle of God's redeeming love and should not be minimized by any means. The circumstances of Jesus' birth, beyond the fact that His earthly parents were working-class folks and He was born in a stable, also reveal God's heart for the lowly and despised things of this world.

Luke's Gospel tells us of the shepherds out tending their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, and the angels' apparition to them heralding the Messiah's birth. What would a Nativity scene be without these wavy-haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon shepherds, genuflecting at the manger? We have greatly romanticized the role of the shepherds. Their part in the Christmas story, as relayers of the angels' Gospel message, was integral. Their role in society, however, was despised. In first-century Israel, shepherd were pretty far down on the highly-stratified class ranking. Ironically enough, the Temple's economy was highly dependant upon shepherds, although they probably wouldn't have been allowed as far as the Outer Courts. Every Passover, with up to a quarter of a million Jews streaming into the city, between 30,000 and 40,000 lambs were needed for the sacrifices. Someone had to raise those lambs. (The whole scenario reminds me of the illegal immigrant outcry of a few years ago - a local hotel manager was quoted anonymously as admitting, "Without illegals, we'd be using paper plates and plastic forks...the whole hospitality industry is dependant upon them.")

During the post-exilic stage of Israel's history, which gave rise to Rabbinical Judaism, Jewish society had become very class-conscious. At the top of the heap were the Sadducees, the wealthy, theologically-liberal controllers of the temple (and by extension, the economic center of Jewish life). As you all probably know, the high priesthood was a dynastic office within this class. Right under the Sadducees were the uber-conservative Pharisees, the guardians of the Torah and the academic, learned talmide hakhamim ('students of the wise'). Intermarriage with commoners was so discouraged that marrying the daughter of a Pharisee was an exclusive status symbol.

I guarantee you this kid does not go to Harvard.

These upper class intellectuals looked upon the unlearned, unwashed masses of Judaism with scorn and derision (as even a surface reading of the gospels reveals). They had a particular name for these lower classes of Jews: "am ha-aretz" (עם הארץ ), literally "people of the land". This derisive term, somewhat analagous to our slur "red-neck", was further used for two sub-categories of blue collar folk: the ʿam ha-aretz le-mitzvot, Jews disparaged for not scrupulously observing the commandments, and ʿam ha-aretz la-Torah, those stigmatized as ignoramuses for not having studied the Torah at all. It was into this latter category that shepherds fell...they were the "trailer trash" of Judea at the time of Christ. Jewish texts compared marriage to one of their daughters to "crossbreeding of grapevine with wild wine, which is "unseemly and disagreeable". This is in stark contrast to shepherding during the earlier, Patriarchal period - when it was a somewhat prestigious vocation.

By the time of Christ, Jewish shepherds would have been excluded from "polite society" for their ceremonial uncleanness as much as their unimpressive pedigree. Think about it: Luke mentions that they were living out in the fields, and there were no portable showers in those days. If the Pharisees chided the Apostles for omitting the ceremonial hand-washing, imagine what they would have thought about dudes who bathed perhaps once a month?

How exactly like God to first reveal His Son's birth to such people!  "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

So here we have the Creator of the universe, God Incarnate from the foundation of the world, being born to a working-class mom, in a stable. The first people privileged with the "glad tidings" (read: really, really cool news) of the Savior's arrival are some dirty, smelly dudes in a field. The religious establishment won't give the time of day to these folks. They never go to Temple, and probably can't read much Hebrew. Not many prospects in life, and not much chance of moving up in the world.
How exactly like stoop down to the lowest, most disenfranchised and forgotten individuals, and say "I care! I love you! And I've got great, too, can have peace with Me. My Son is 'God with you', and He's here now. Go to Him!"

6 comments: said...

Marie, I'm honored by your comment on my post. Your work so far exceeds mine in depth that there is no comparison. You say so beautifully what I fumble to try to express. Did you read my post "Ever think about it this way?" about trying to reverse the splitting of the atom? Infinite becoming finite?

P.S. Incidentally, there's no solid proof there was even a stable. He may have been in a feed trough out in the open air without a roof or shelter of any sort.

Marie said...

Yes, Don, I did and found it very inspiring; you sell your own work short! Yeah, you're right on the stable tradition. In the Nativity Story, a film our family enjoyed, they depicted it as a cave which may have been more likely than a wooden stable. And of course we know the Magi arrived much later. But I was most struck by how God chose to reveal Himself to the lowly shepherds first!

lyn said...

thank you for bringing to light a significant truth...God went to the ordinary,the despised first. What a wonderful truth this, and mostly overlooked. He still works in this way; He chose me, a nobody, and poured out grace and mercy:He saved me!
Bless you for such a beautiful post!

Marie said...

Thanks lyn!

And yet we often forget, in our human zeal for recognition, what God values: the lowly and humble. If only we could learn to really live for an audience of One!

Anonymous said...

Marie, you know how much I admire your work. The interview was really outstanding. And your observations about the incarnation provide even further thought-provoking material. For myself, I've been dwelling on this "eternal event" as carefully as I ever have and am filled with wonder and worshipful awe! I've spent days and days contemplating the "glossary" ...what words like glory, joy, messiah, Emmanuel, Christ, Lord, etc. really mean...especially in today's jargon. What a great, great experience this is being for me and I find myself at times simply speechless. I pray for you, mention you as often as possible and hope for great success in your ministsry. BTW, did you check out the review lady mntioned? She did a great piece on my work, and I abruptly sold out of the second edition (very small) and had to quickly re-order. Please follow up on this with some words about your work. don

Marie said...

Hi Don,

Thank you for the encouragemenyt. Yes, I did read the review of God's Comeback Kids (well done!) when you posted it and I have saved the e-mail you sent me, but no; I have not yet contacted her. I may do so as I get closer to publication, and ask if she might do a pre-publication write-up or would be interested in doing a review.

BTW, Martha Peace said chapter 10 (which I've re-written at least 5 times) is finally good to go. I think we're finally getting close!!