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Everyone knows (don't they?) that the dis-establishment of Scrooge by Dickens was the beginning of our modern Christmas celebrations. But also, as everyone does know, there are still many who remain outside those celebrations in poverty in the world and also, relatively so, in the UK. It is also a time of loneliness for many who are outside the family circle. And as the days of holiday move on towards the New Year a sense of desperation that 'life' has all but come to a stop. But the actual centre of Christmas lies elsewhere, in a unique person who has links to everyone, if they but knew it. Everyone knows (don't they??) who that person is. But who is he? The rightful celebration of a birthday and the songs about that child of 2000 years ago can be confusing. The celebration of the bambino, of the child in the manger, seems to have had its origins in the 13th century in the Umbrian mountains in Italy with The Poverello, the Poor Man from Assisi, Francis. That is a glad celebration of the mystery of his birth. But, again, let us ask, who is he, this Man, born so long ago?
In the Creed of 325 and its later version of 381 which will be spoken aloud this Christmas in our churches, there is this assertion about the Man born so long ago -
'[He is the] Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.'
The origins of these assertions in the 4th century about this one Man lay in the need to stop all mistaken ideas about him. Did he have a divine or a human nature when he was born or did he have both 'natures' combined in himself? There were those who said as a human being he could only have one nature and others who claimed that his human nature was but a cloak, and not a real humanity, covering the divine, doing their best to make a statement about the uniqueness of the Man, Jesus. It has been pointed out, however, that the idea of conjoining the nature of man with the divine nature in one person takes for granted that we actually 'know' what the nature of man is, and that if we don't know that then can we know what is the nature of the divine, of God? While science has made great progress in the past century in finding a great deal of how human nature 'ticks', we cannot actually say what human nature is in any precise terms other than to describe what we do - think, act humanely, fall into errors, enjoy Christmas, get weary and die.
We can avoid the seeming non-sense of the 4th century definitions. There are other ways of answering the question, 'Who is Jesus'. As with reading many books, it is often not a bad idea to peek at the ending - particularly with Whodunits! - to get an idea of the plot of the book. This is particularly true of the gospels. So instead of starting with the birth of this Man, start with the ending, which is really the new beginning, the raising of Jesus to Lordship and then turn half way back through the gospel to the extraordinary event of the transfiguration of Jesus.
The raising of Jesus to Lordship is the foundation of all Christian faith and more particularly of the new-found faith of the first disciples. They were not easily convinced, according to the strange accounts of the appearances in Matthew and Luke, but once convinced they knew that God had acted in Jesus to renew the creation and humanity. That's why the gospels were eventually written and also why the risen life of Jesus presumably sparked off the even stranger narratives of the nativity - he was in their eyes, as he also claimed for himself, Son of Man from start to finish.
But there is more. During his ministry they had sensed that here was a man, their leader, who was someone not only to be committed to, but who often astounded them by his boldness of vision which often made them afraid. So the extraordinary event of the transfiguration at the watershed of that ministry is presumably put there by all three evangelists, to make a statement. Here was one who, they were certain, dealt with the divine, face to face - unlike Moses and the prophets.
Have we got any further with the question we started out with? Yes and No. Yes, because in this Man there is somehow summed up all the hopes of humankind. There is in him - who is now, according to faith, always present to us in a transcendent presence - the assurance of the future of human life. More than that he is always active both in inviting us to enter into that fulfilled life in worship and also enabling us to be messengers of the divine in our every day lives. No, because, as with the first disciples, here and now, we shall never have the language perfectly to explain this phenomenon of the Man, apart from the language of our activity as persons who have been turned round to face him with assurance and love.
... the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
© Aelred Arnesen
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