Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary"


[From a sermon preached at Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne on Sunday May 18 2014, in a series on the Apostles' Creed]

In this brief pair of phrases from the Apostle’s Creed we find expressed in a pithy narrative form the Christian answer to the question “who is Jesus?"

The answer can also be called the doctrine of the incarnation. Historically, we profess that this conception and this birth happened; theologically, we have said rather more in the process of reciting the Creed - namely that Jesus is truly divine and truly human.

The Christian affirmation that Jesus is divine and human is the most distinctive thing the Church has to say about God, humankind and the world.

Some people digging down into this affirmation may however find it problematic; it may seem to be not merely unlikely but contradictory to say that a person is at the same time the transcendent reality on which the world depends for its existence and the particular historical figure constrained by time and space, human nature and culture. Is this more meaningful than saying that God can make a square circle or a breakfast so large he cannot eat it? But the Christian affirmation about Jesus’ identity does not begin with our preconceptions about divinity and humanity; rather we allow both these to be redefined by what we learn from him about them.

Perhaps it’s true of most of us that we at least begin with one aspect or the other, the divine or human, when it comes to Jesus.

There are certainly those more comfortable sticking with Jesus’ humanity - “born of the Virgin Mary” - than with his divinity. For some, Jesus is thus primarily a good example of being human, a moral teacher or example. I confess that this approach I have never found particularly convincing, in that Jesus’ teaching and example - taken in isolation at least - are at best confronting and at worst a counsel of despair. But few who claim him in these terms really pay attention to the radical nature of his proclamation about love; instead they turn it into something like a version of the “golden rule”, and depict him as a kind and wise self-help guru.

Yes, Jesus does say “do unto others”, but describes this as the essence not of his own teaching but of the law and the prophets (Matt 7:12). Jesus of course affirms this too but says, more confrontingly, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27). He also says “think not that I have come to bring peace on earth, but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt” (Luke 6:29), and - last for now, but not least, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).

Jesus’ teaching about love in other words is not a self-contained moral prescription for the good life; it is a radical set of claims that cannot be understood independently of him and his fate. As Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it regarding what Jesus’ life teaches, “if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you”. If Jesus’ teaching were translated to the shelves of inspirational book-sellers, we’d be reading “Chicken Soup for the Crucified” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Offensive People”.

Little wonder then that even the faithful tend to flick past Jesus’ own teaching and its unsettling elements, and sink more comfortably into the relative comfort of later Christian reflections about how to exist in a stable and sustainable way. The man Jesus is, taken in isolation, a tragic figure.

So on the other hand, and perhaps more commonly among Christians, Jesus’ divinity - “conceived by the Holy Spirit” - may be assumed as the starting point. This may sound more orthodox, superficially at least, but it is not necessarily so.

Too often Christians may adopt a sort of space-suit theology; God we imagine appeared in human form, but for the purposes of effective communication, as a marketing strategy of sorts. This quasi-human God can be very attractive; he seems to be a great ally, and can help us order neat prosperous lives. But this is not really Jesus either.

What the creed affirms is that God not only appeared human or took on a body, but that God “born of the Virgin Mary” entered into the whole reality of human experience, including finitude and mortality. While the Gospels present Jesus as embodying the kingdom of God in ways that exceed human capacity and expectation, they also present him to us as limited in knowledge, capable of feeling grief and despair, and of course ultimately constrained as we are by his mortality; for nativity must always foreshadow mortality too.

I suggested earlier that to affirm Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” was to confess the doctrine of the Incarnation, but not merely to combine our preconceptions about divinity and humanity. We can begin, then, with Jesus' humanity or divinity as we attempt to understand his significance for us; but we cannot remain where we began, wherever that may have been.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit”.

So it is above all with him, conceived of the Spirit and born of the Virgin. We believe that as the human being uniquely conceived by that restless creative Spirit and who thus shows us what God is really like in the world, Jesus does not fulfil our preconceived notions of what our human lives are for, or of who God is, but offers new, disturbing and glorious glimpses of real human life and of true divine service. We believe that meeting him, truly God and truly human, we find that the humanity we share with him and Mary is changed; and that the divinity we encounter is more remarkable, more awe-inspiring, and more loving than we had ever imagined.

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