Most typically, the theological concept that we ponder and celebrate at Christmas is that of incarnation, or God-becoming-flesh.
In Matthew 1.23-25, the messenger of God speaks to Joseph to tell of the birth of Jesus, and quotes to him scripture, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” If that divine oracle isn’t enough to solidify the Christmas = Incarnation equation, John 1 goes in for a slam-dunk: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (vs. 14).
In a similar manner, the theology of atonement, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ,” is relegated to Lent and Easter, and almost exclusively focused on the crucifixion and death of Jesus oxymoronically commemorated on Good Friday.
It is clear that scripture is rife with this lens of theology regarding atonement (1 Peter 2:24, 1 John 2:2, Romans 5:6-11, to name just a few examples) culminating with Paul’s words in Romans 5, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”
We are steeped in this theological perspective, so much so that to question Christmas = Incarnation and Easter = Atonement is to be understood as questioning the very foundations of Christianity itself. [Read my wrangling with this in my sermon on Palm Sunday.
Let me begin by stepping back and pointing out that the very environment in which we live leads us to think in a certain way; in this case that the birth narrative of Jesus is the ultimate expression of incarnational theology and the crucifixion account can only be interpreted as atonement theology, and that it would be heresy to believe exactly the opposite.
This past week I watched the movie “Arrival” in the theater, and a primary theme of the movie that emerges in some brave, if understated, ways is the importance of context and environment to our thoughts and our words. Without giving away the movie, which I highly recommend you seeing, I would lift up the challenge of the main character, who reminds the decision makers who have called upon her for her expertise in linguistics, that the context of our language precedes in importance the actual words themselves.
For example, if we are in the midst of playing a game that is highly competitive, our language will assume winners and losers and inevitably invite conflict. If we are immersed gardening or raising children, our language will more likely bring forth words and actions that are nurturing and life giving. The setting of our lives shape our very words and, more importantly, the thinking that bring them forth. I believe this wholeheartedly, even before seeing the movie.
So, for almost all contemporary Christians, growing up with everyone around us equating the Advent scriptures that lead Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to give birth to the baby Jesus with incarnation seems natural. The warm, happy, nurturing aspects upon which we focus during this season leads us naturally to the very comfortable and encouraging theology of incarnation. It almost feels like God nuzzles up beside us, like the new puppy we were given on Christmas day, and helps us feel the world is going to be alright. Which on one level, is alright. But there can be more.
Likewise, the dreadful march towards Jerusalem during Holy Week, from the shallow “Hosanna’s” on Palm Sunday, through the guilt-laden final supper, bearing the bloody beatings at the hands of the civil authorities and the unsympathetic spite of the religious leaders, culminating in the harrowing image of our Savior gasping and dying on the cross, seem only natural to us it is so familiar.
The theology of the atonement, as defined throughout the ages as the death of Jesus on the cross, appears to be the expected – and accepted – penance we make as human beings for all the sin we have accumulated since the day Adam and Eve chose to misbehave, and we’ve all had hell to pay ever since! This, too, may have it’s place, but there is so much more to the story.
Therefore, I would like to offer another way of seeing things. Acknowledging that there is, unquestionably, scripture to back up these theologies of incarnating and atonement, and there are thoughtful and trained theologians throughout history who have confirmed this viewpoint, I would like to imagine something slightly different. No, let me be honest, something radically different.
I believe the birth of Jesus is the ultimate act of atonement and that the crucifixion and death of Jesus is the decisive embodiment of incarnation.
If the ultimate purpose of atonement is to bridge the great divide of humanity with God, to make amends for the sorry state of the world as we have made it (some would say), what better way to wake us up, to focus our attention, to remind us of what is important in life and what is not, than to bring a baby into our midst?!?
Vulnerable, needy, uncorrupted, and hope-filled babies demand from us a complete change of attitude, priorities, and life itself. Using the common parlance for atonement as God becoming “at one” with humanity, the birth of the divine into our midst is certainly a joining together of the human and the divine in incredibly powerful ways, biologically, as well as sociologically, emotionally, and philosophically!
If atonement requires sacrifice, just ask a parent who has a new baby whether or not giving birth to a child requires sacrifice! In fact, bringing a new life into the world and nurturing that being over many years to a place of self-sustaining livelihood might be seen as a larger and deeper understanding of sacrifice, since it isn’t a one-time-death but a day-by-day, even moment-by-moment sacrifice of time, energy, resources, sleep, joy, fear, tears, anger, courage… and love. The birth of a child is the ultimate sacrifice of love!
Three family members stand out as persons who define sacrificial love in my life: my father, my mother, and my sister, who is 21 years older than me. Each one in his or her own way has not only helped to shape who I am and what legacy I will leave in this world, but has helped redeem me.
My father was a career military man who died of cancer a few months before I was born. While I never knew my father face-to-face, I knew him though the stories and lives of others, and his inheritance was huge in my becoming who I am now and in how I saw my place in life. Because of Lt. Col. Wesley Dalton Harris I understand personally when folks talk about military heroes embodying sacrifice and service to a larger cause. When I read of my father’s incredible courage as a paratrooper in the Army’s prestigious 82nd Airborne division, I cannot help but think of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “No greater love than this, than a man lay down his life for a friend,” (John 15:13). I honor my father on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, and am forever proud of him for his sacrifice.
But I am equally proud of my mother and my sister for their sacrifices, as mother and career nurse and sister and career teacher, respectively. My mother, Sara Sizemore Traffendstedt Harris, served in a hospital on the side of our town with the most racial and economic diversity (by far). From the head nurse in the Emergency Room, then later the Operating Room, to the Executive Director of the nursing home attached to the hospital, my mother served “the least of these” with her self-less passion, hard-earned skills, hours of time and energy, and I would even say heart felt love. Similarly, my sister was a teacher on that same side of town.
Lynda Gayle Sizemore Koglin’s greatest joy was working with kids from some of the most difficult of life’s circumstances and helping them overcome the obstacles to being a stronger student and therefore healthier citizen of the world. There is no greater love than the love I saw my mother and my sister give – quite sacrificially – to those they served.
And if blood is required for atonement, as it appears at least historically to have been interpreted as being necessary (and which, for the record, I don’t believe it is at all), then the nativity of Jesus has enough blood to qualify! The blood of the mother, Mary, pulsed through the infant for nine months, bringing life-giving nutrients to the embryo, fetus, and then baby. That’s blood atonement! There is a certain amount of blood shed in any birthing process, and certainly one that took place in a stable away from doctors and midwives.
That’s blood atonement! And, if this isn’t enough blood-letting, the part of the Christmas story we skip over most regularly, the slaughter of the innocent children by power-crazed King Herod, should certainly qualify as a horrific sacrifice in the journey of God seeking to redeem humankind from our violent ways. All of these account, in my book, for blood atonement and do not require me to believe God meant for or needed Jesus to die to ensure our salvation. In fact, the need was for Christ to be BORN and to LIVE for our salvation!
This Christmas, like never before, I believe that the Advent and then birth of Jesus Christ to Mary and Joseph was ultimately a story of atonement, the redemption of humanity’s relationship with God, in an act of life and love. As with all things related to faith, such an atonement is a rich partnership between who the Divine is and what the Divine does and who we are and what we do as human beings in response to God’s being and actions. I find the demands made of me by God’s birth in a stable to a poor, immigrant couple to be just as challenging to my faith, if not more so, than Jesus’ death on a cross.
As for the crucifixion being an act of holy redemption, I’ll save that for another blog post… maybe in two or three months. 😉
For now, let me conclude simply by inviting you to respond to my premise: that the expiation of our sins, the reconciliation of God and humanity, and the restoration of our relationship with the one who created us was confirmed at Christmas by Jesus’ birth as much as, perhaps even more than, than it was at Easter by Jesus’ death. As always, I would love to know what do you think?