On the Incarnation (Part 2)

(Material from adult Bible class at Hollywood Church of Christ)

God the Refugee

A Darker Christmas Drama

Luke’s birth narrative has its overtones of uncertainty and fear in the midst of weakness and poverty, but it pivots on the promise of blessing  and the declaration of great joy. Matthew’s story, however, is colored with a sombre and ominous palette. There is plenty to say about the genealogy, but picking up with the summary in Matt 1:17, we see the stage set clearly for the current act: Israel is in exile.

Undoubtedly, the announcement of a savior in 1:21 is an irruption of good news, but Matthew paints the backdrop of this moment starkly. The opening lines of the hymn capture it well:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

Matthew alone names Jesus “Emmanuel,” giving us the key to his rendition of the incarnation: God with us. Us who? With us where? Here, in exile, “in the time of King Herod” (2:1). Dark days, and darker to come. Because the point is not that everything is now well. In Matthew there is actually no “Rejoice!” yet. The hymn collapses the two birth narratives so that Luke’s angelic good tidings interrupt the tyranny and mourning of Matthew’s slaughter. This is not a criticism of the hymn itself, for the church’s imagination holds both stories together and sings with one voice. But Matthew’s contribution to the doctrine of the incarnation is his own, and he defers celebration in order to make an equally powerful point: to say that God is with us in the flesh of Jesus is to say that God is with us in the midst of lonely exile’s mourning. Jesus is God’s sharing in this suffering, not just it’s automatic resolution. Salvation is God coming into exile, becoming an exile with us, becoming literally, bodily a refugee.

Le_Massacre_des_innocents_-_Nicolas_Poussin_-_Petit_Palais_-_1626-1627
Massacre of the Innocents (1626-1627) by Nicolas Poussin

This is not the imagery we like to decorate our houses with at Christmas time. But this is the certainly the image that overwhelms the sequence from 1:18 to 2:23. Here is Matthew’s Christmas tale: God with us, truly with us, in the depths of depravity. God joins the vulnerable, whose only recourse is to flee. God joins Israel, who waited in Egyptian captivity and waits in exile still. God becomes king, and the king becomes a refugee. Back to Egypt. God has come in the flesh to ransom captive Israel, but now as captive Israel. Matthew’s point of departure is what Paul calls the wisdom of God that seems to be foolishness. The wisest of the wise, the magi of the East, come to revere this salvation: God with us in the flesh. God the refugee.

[Here is my favorite version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” right now. The tone is right, and I especially like the way the first two verses build without the chorus. Also, the violent transition to “Herod the king, in his raging” is on point.]

Does It Matter?

I’ve gone through pretty much every Christmas in my life without dwelling on the dark, violent story that Matthew tells. I’ve thought about the incarnation, but I’ve never considered Jesus literally becoming a refugee. I’ve marveled that God became flesh but haven’t reflected much on the sharp specificity of which flesh. So I ask, do these details matter? We get along most years without Matthew’s details. The other Gospels don’t feel the need to go there. What does it change that, of all the things Matthew might have told us, he tells about the murder of children and the flight to Egypt?

First, let’s become conscious that when we ask “Does it matter?” we’re almost always asking “Does it matter for me?” But what if the reason, or the main reason, or one of the reasons it matters is not for me? Limiting the interpretation of Scripture to the output of meaning “for me” can blind us to other important implications and even trap us in grave misunderstanding. Second, let’s allow the incarnation to do its work on us. Another reason we have difficulty seeing the radical importance of Matthew’s details is the tendency toward disembodied spirituality. But Matthew’s details bring the general affirmation of the incarnation to a fine point: the flesh, the human body, is at issue in salvation—at issue in the bodies of oppressed peoples, murdered children, and weary refugees. This flesh!

Contextualization Is Not Application

In mission studies, contextualization is a contested concept. My understanding, however, is that contextualization should not be confused with application. “Application” has become its own industry among Christians. We have application study Bibles, application commentaries, and—I’m just guessing—application bracelets, book marks, key chains, and coffee mugs. Of course, it’s always possible to quibble about words, and I’m not actually picking on the word application per se. My problem is that “application” has become the cipher for the individualistic and, more importantly, self-centered interpretive exercises of American Christianity (speaking for my own context). “How does this apply to my life?” is the question that guides many studies and sermons. When this is the question, it becomes difficult to know why the details like those of Matthew’s birth narrative matter.

Let’s say the idea is that God relates to us through the incarnation. In that case, if I’m not a refugee (or poor, or oppressed by an empire, or hunted by a despot), then God does not relate to me by taking on the flesh of a refugee. He would still be God in the flesh without the Herod story. He would still be God with us if the magi has tricked Herod into some other course of action. How then can I apply the particularity of the incarnation to my life? Must I be a refugee in order for the details to matter? Perhaps it is enough that he became human? Or is it that he generally relates to everyone with hardships or enemies? Actually, “application” does amount to generalization in many cases, ultimately rendering particularity irrelevant. “God wants to be with me” (which is Matthew’s version of “Jesus loves me”) is an important, meaningful conclusion, but it doesn’t require this story.

In our context in 2015, the global refugee crisis is on everyone’s mind. When I see the likeness of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing Herod in the images of Syrian refugees, the question takes on a new sense. Does it matter for them that God became a refugee? Does it matter to me that God became a refugee for them? New contexts have the power to shake us free of interpretive habits and ask new questions.

[Three slides. Sculpture: “The Holy Family Resting – The Flight to Egypt” by Anna Hyatt Huntington. Photo of refugee mother by Salinia Stroux.]

Contextualization, however, is still not application. Certainly, “God cares for the vulnerable, so I should too” gets closer to the gist of a story written to churches; after all, Matthew is not endlessly trying to convince Christians that God loves them. The incarnation and the Great Commission are a single story, so the meaning of “go” in ch. 28 is qualified by the way Jesus “comes” in ch. 2. Yet, it’s still misleading to think Matthew offers his particulars so that the church would make applications like “love refugees in 2015.” Rather, his particulars give us a way of seeing everything so that we can rightly judge what to do in 2015. The outcome may even seem to be the same, but Jesus the refugee is neither a general principle nor a narrow directive. If the same Syrians were staying in the grip of war rather than fleeing it, the incarnation would still guide us as the story of what God cares about and how God saves.

So when I see the likeness of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the images of Syrian refugees, it’s not that I now have the chance to make a specific “refugee” application that Matthew’s particulars require. It is, instead, that sometimes our context makes it easier to see that Matthew’s story is our story. I said in part one that Advent is about “rehearsing” Israel’s wait as we wait. In other words, Advent is one instance of an essential practice that consists of reading the story of Scripture as the script of our own story. The script metaphor helps us break away from “application,” because actors don’t apply a script. They bring it to life in many ways that can’t be captured by the notion of application. This Christmas, the church is reminded forcefully by Syrian refugees that the incarnation is the story we have been called to participate in—a story in which God sets the world free in solidarity with, by sharing the life of, such as our Syrian neighbors. The question is not, therefore, how Matthew applies to my life but whether Matthew’s story transforms my story. If my story becomes a part of the incarnation story, then I can see all kinds of implications in my context.

Call these contextual implications “applications” if you like (again, I have no problem with the word itself), but this is far different than “X passage means Y application.” I do not, for example, claim that Matt 2:13–14 applies to my life as a command to have compassion for refugees. (In fact, for a participant in the biblical drama, that command would be ridiculously obvious.) No, the particulars matter in a more powerful, transformative way.

God did not merely become human. He became a refugee. I cannot see God or my neighbors apart from this particularity. I cannot worship God as other than incarnate and a refugee. I cannot consider the crisis in Syria apart from the particular way that God has related to humanity. I cannot understand my salvation or theirs except through this story. I cannot live in Christlikeness toward my Syrian neighbor except as a continuation of the story that tells me very specifically what Christ is like. I cannot decide what to do with my money, or what to pray, or how to engage in public discourse unless all of these are participation in the kingdom of a refugee king. This is my story. It is very particular. And its particularity is exactly what guides me as my context changes.

The Spiritualization Trap—and the Pendulum

At this point in Western Christianity, the most reflexive kind of generalization is spiritualization. The easiest way to think about particularity that seems foreign to me is to make it spiritual. Suddenly we are all spiritual refugees in spiritual captivity who need spiritual liberation in order to be spiritually near to God. And, anyway, what good would it do for God to save refugees from oppression and war if their sins aren’t forgiven? And if their sins are forgiven, their bodily circumstances are secondary at best. And if Jesus’s death on the cross is what saves us, the circumstances of his birth don’t affect that transaction. And so on.

I have to say forcefully, this way of thinking is nonsense. But it’s pervasive nonsense that deserves extensive discussion. This post isn’t the place for that, but it is the place to put the incarnation in contention with spiritualization. God with us is God in the flesh—we have no other story. God took on flesh; there can be no greater affirmation of the body. The flesh is spiritual; spiritual life is bodily. Salvation is comprehensive. Liberation is from all oppression; every kind of captivity is spiritual. The bodily circumstances of refugees do not have a spiritual root; bodily circumstances are spiritual circumstances; bodily rescue is spiritual rescue; spiritual salvation is bodily salvation. God saves the flesh, in the flesh, through the flesh. There is no disembodied forgiveness of sin. There is no physical well-being that is not a part of salvation.

The incarnation forbids us to swing from spiritualization to materialism. It is also nonsense for the church to react to spiritualization by focusing only on material service. Salvation from war, poverty, oppression, and injustice requires the transformation of human hearts—those of perpetrators as well as victims. Well-being comes through reconciliation with God in Christ. This is not disembodied well-being or well-being apart from justice, but neither is it justice apart from the Spirit of God. Social justice and material service are spiritual acts, through and through. But apart from the Spirit, they can degenerate into practices of materialism. This fact, that material well-being or social justice can exist apart from reconciliation to God is what traps the church in materialism in the first place and sets the pendulum to swinging. There is much more to say about how we might think about the Spirit and the flesh without succumbing to dualism. For now, I pray we fix our eyes on the flesh of God. It is the body of this infant refugee that anchors our confession, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9) and bids us imagine the fullness of human spirituality as no less bodily.

1 Comment

  1. I began reading your posts recently. This one, and its predecessor, make me think more deeply about the birth narratives than before. I have had my classes read the Luke account as a dramatic reading in years past. I like your emphasis on reading Matthew without conflating it into Luke. Matthew’s darkness is appropriate for our time, and for all times.

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