“They shall name him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'”
We all know the familiar Christmas stories found in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels. There we read about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and Wisemen, and the rest of the Christmas tableaux. Mark says nothing about any of this, nor does John. But in the prologue to John’s Gospel we are taken behind the scene into the deep meaning of Christmas. John speaks about the Word who was with God from the beginning becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth. This puts Christmas into a cosmic context. But how do we connect the Christmas story with this breathtaking announcement that the creative Word which brought everything into being became one of us? Matthew makes the connection for us. He tells us that the baby born in Bethlehem is “Emmanuel,” “God is with us,” not God against us, not remote from, but God with and for us.
This is a dramatic declaration. It is not how God is generally understood in the world where power is seldom determined by love or shaped by justice. It is even more dramatic when it is said of a baby born out of wedlock to a young girl and a carpenter in a stable in a small unimportant Palestinian village that has no pretentions to glory, but is the site of this audacious claim that is the foundation of all else that flows from Christian faith. It is also goes far beyond the boundaries of Christianity or religion for it has to do with what it means for us humans to be made in the image of God.
From the beginning of the human story billions of years ago we humans have tried to understand who we are, as well as understand the mystery of the One in whom we live, move and have our being, the mystery we call God. These two questions, who are we and who is the mysterious source of life, have always belonged together. But they come together in the Christmas story. For we Christians believe that it is only when we journey with the shepherds and Wisemen to Bethlehem to see what has has come to pass”, that we discover that the answer to both our questions at the same time, an answer lying in a manger. For if this child is God with us, if this is the icon of the invisible God, as St. Paul says, then we who are made in the image of God are meant to be conformed to his image.
The declaration made in Genesis that we are made in the “image of God” was startling when it was first uttered and it remains startling. It means that if we are to know who God is we must first learn to know ourselves. For without knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of how we have evolved and what we have become, knowledge of God is not possible. Yet the more we do this, the more difficult our quest becomes because God’s image in us has been so defaced and distorted. So much so, in fact, that if we think of God as a big one of us, then God becomes a bad father, a God of war, a God who demands human sacrifice, a God who is capricious, a God who gets angry, greedy and vengeful, a God who seems absent not with those who suffer in Syria. A God who is against us, against the world, against humanity. Yes, we continually make God according to our broken sinful image. So we end up worshipping idols and fail to recognise the true image of God in us and others, which is about being with and loving our neighbour, our enemy, and creation itself, and therefore loving God as ourselves. When we fail to discern and respect the true image of the God in us and others, we turn disliking the other, rejecting the other, hating the other, and we even call on God’s name to support us in doing so. The image of God in us is defaced as we deface others.
But into this messy world hungry for good news we hear again the message of Christmas, as startling as the first time it was heard. A child will be born and he shall be called Emmanuel, God is with and for us. Instead of us trying to find God, or searching for the ultimate meaning of life elsewhere, the good news is that the true image of God has been born again in a baby in Bethlehem. There, in the language of St. Paul, is a “second Adam” in whom we are able to see again the true image of God, the “icon of the invisible God” as Paul also refers to him. He is the human face of the God. This is precisely what Charles Wesley invites us to sing about in his great Christmas carol “Hark! the herald angels sing,”
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
The restoration of the image of God in us begins, then, with the birth of a baby in whom God’s power is revealed in weakness, and the wisdom of God made manifest in what the world counts foolishness. Already in the manger the cross is prefigured, overturning all our assumptions about God. Christmas is about the vulnerability of God, God’s identification with us in our fallen humanity. It is the good news of God’s love, joy and peace for the world. Christmas heralds the beginning of a new creation, the offer of a fresh start for humankind. When by faith we truly see the image of God made flesh in Jesus we receive the ability to see God’s image in the face of others and discover God’s way of redemptive love for the world. That is why we declare that in Christ God reconciles the world to himself. In the Christ-child we not only discover the God who is with us, we also discover our true humanity in being with God for others. We are born again.
If we journey in faith and wonder with the shepherds, the humble men and women of all ages, or follow the star with the wise men and women of every generation, and hasten to see this thing that has come to pass, then it is that we discover that the God who is with and for us is the God who enables us to discover ourselves in being with and for others. For there in the little town of Bethlehem a miracle occurred that is as amazing as the birth of the first human being. For the gift of Christmas is a second chance for the world, the offer to us all to receive this gift and start again as children in whom the image of God is reborn. For if God so loved the world that he became one of us to make us whole again, so ought we to love the world in order that through us God might make others whole.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 22 December 2016