Telling it true
Peter Anthonydraws us back to the heart of the incarnation the narrative on which our faith is based and explains why we must trust and accept the givenness of this revelation
In early November I was lucky enough to take part in a visit by the Diocese of London to one of its partner dioceses, the Lutheran Diocese of Berlin-Brandenburg. During the trip our group was taken on a tour of a secondary school in the suburbs of Berlin, where we were shown a display of RE work done by the children. They were asked to put on a wall what they felt the ultimate point of being a Christian was. The display was full of a whole series of perfectly laudable sentiments. The point of being a Christian is: ‘to be kind to one another’; ‘to ensure human rights are respected’; 'to help the poor and the marginalized.’
However, neglected at the bottom of all these beautifully coloured-in pieces of work was the rather dog-eared, mangy attempt of a pupil who signed himself ‘the King of Chaos'. Evidently the school rebel, he was answering the same question as his class mates, but he came up with a very different response. Written in rather smudged, inky handwriting on paper which bore all the evidence of a large doughnut stain were the following words, 'The point of being a Christian is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’
The ‘King of Chaos' was the only clearly Christian answer on the whole board, because he was the only one openly to name faith in the incarnate Son of God as being the essence of what it means to be a Christian. All the others were perfectly reasonable answers, but somehow, with an appealingly rebellious tenacity, the ‘King of Chaos' had cut through to the essential core. For all his plucky bravado, he had pointed to a crucial groundedness and rootedness in his faith, that at the heart of the Gospel lies the ‘givenness' of the incarnation.
Our starting point is the fact that the Word became flesh. In a world of relativism and in the midst of the platitudes of institutional RE lessons, this ‘King of Chaos’ knew what lay at the heart of his faith.
This simple givenness of the incarnation is one of the most important things the Church must proclaim. This is because it stems from the first intuitions of those who encountered Christ. From the earliest Christian texts it is clear that those who experience Jesus' presence know they are experiencing the presence of God. Matthew’s gospel, for example, points to Jesus as ‘God with us,' whilst the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the 'exact imprint of God’s very being.’ The assertion of Christ’s divinity is not a late accretion into Christianity. The New Testament witnesses consistently to the prior conviction of the Church which wrote it that in Christ is the fullness of God’s presence.
At the heart of our faith lies narrative. It is the narrative of God’s gracious conversation with the humanity he created. It is real story. It is not a series of philosophical propositions that we assent to, but an experience of the love of the living God, which we respond to and grow into. In the life of Jesus, we see God entering our existence in real time and real space - so that our experience of his love might be real too. Christ’s birth was not just incidental or random, but stemmed out of the providence of God’s intentions.
Christ was born into a certain family at a certain time and in a certain place because we are too. Our experience was to be his experience - so that ours could be graced by God’s presence. I often feel that in order to rediscover the liberating power of the Incarnation we need some of that grungy, counter-cultural confidence in its givenness that the ‘King of Chaos' displayed. This is important for three reasons.
First of all, it tells us who we are. At the heart of our identity as Christians is not so much the fact that we have welcomed Christ into our lives, as that he has welcomed us into his. His was the first step in reaching out to us. The incarnation tells us that we aren’t just a group of people with an important message about Christ, but rather the embodiment of his continuing presence. In baptism we are grafted into Christ and become his Body on earth.
Our life becomes rooted in God’s life and this results in our deepest sense of identity - that the Father sees us in Christ as his sons and daughters. If the incarnation isn’t a given in our thinking, we become unsure of who we are and ultimately despair in the face of an existence where identity is fleeting and equivocal.
Secondly, this givenness of the incarnation gives us a confidence in what we proclaim. This isn’t just about people being convinced by the strength with which we hold our faith, but rather that our response to the love of God shown to us in Christ spills out into an abundance of joy and thanks. Our response to any gift is thankfulness, but this gift specifically evokes a deep down trust. God’s actions are loving and trustworthy. This givenness of the incarnation helps us show that forth in our lives.
Thirdly, the incarnation shows us what our destiny is. The Book of Revelation tells us that ‘the dwelling place of God is with man.' There we see that God wishes us to be with him to all eternity. We are made to experience the company of God for ever and so we look forward with hope. The givenness of the incarnation grounds this hope and frames our horizons. It speaks not just of what God has done but of what he does now and what he will do.
Unless we can trust God’s gracious entering our existence in the person of Jesus, we cannot ultimately know what our destiny is; all we can offer the world is a capricious God whom we hope will be nice to us for as long as he doesn’t change his mind.
As we approach Christmas, we need to give thanks once again for God’s gracious action in assuming our nature. Let us not be ashamed to proclaim the incarnation’s centrality - for as the 'King of Chaos' realized, without it we would have little left to proclaim.
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