John Stendahl is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Dec. 17, 1997, p. 1187, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
As prophet, teacher and champion of God’s dominion, Jesus bid us see not himself but the will of God. So it is with the gift Mary holds on Christmas morning. In desire for us, God has forgotten himself. The words and implications come later; but now, first, the Word is an infant and cannot, need not, speak.
The Word was made flesh . . . " In my childhood, this was the Gospel reading for the morning after, the kind of explanatory imagining that would take place when the sun had risen, the angels and shepherds were gone and all the hushed wonder of the night before was blurring in memory. I recall thinking this passage might have been the musing of Mary when she "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."
When our family heard these words in church we had already received our presents. We had gotten them the night before, in a candlelit evening that seemed to breathe contentment and awe. Even those children who didn’t open their gifts until Christmas morning had now done so, and would be playing with their new possessions, more or less discreetly, in the pews. So for me, through the iteration of Christmas mornings, these words about word and flesh connected not just with the Christ child but with thoughts about gifts and giving.
The Word was made flesh. . . This seemed to me a mysterious statement, part of that world whose meaning, beauty and sometimes pain still lay ahead in the realm of adults. But it also suggested something I knew about, something illustrated each Christmas and birthday, namely that gifts are forms of communication. Words are written on each package, each wrapped gift carries a message from its giver. Often it’s a little poem, the embarrassment of love made bearable in playfulness, but even a brief phrase can affirm and bless.
And so I found this meaning in my young pondering; Jesus, God’s present to the world, was sent as a messenger; a word-bearer to us. God’s old epistolary strategy, putting words in the mouths of prophets and on pages of scripture, had not sufficed. The urgent words of love and warning had not been heeded. God needed to come closer to get our attention. So God put the message on a gift, the gift of a child. Jesus would grow to speak the needed words, and hearing him would be like listening to the voice of the giver. We would be able to read what God wanted to say to us in the shape of Jesus’ life, in his words and deeds.
For all its naïveté, this thought about the incarnation has some truth and value. Recent quests for the historical Jesus have been driven in part by the desire to find a concrete message in his life and work. The drama of divine incarnation and atonement ought not to be — as it has easily been — abstracted from the teaching of Jesus, his proclamation of God’s kingdom made into an incidental preamble to the "deep" and "real" mystery of faith. Then the orthodox language can short-circuit and the high Christology disincarnate Christ.
When we come to his death and resurrection, it matters what it was that brought him there, what he tried to teach and tell and show. It matters for what cause his passion consumed him, and what vision God vindicated by his resurrection. In the Marcan tradition, indeed, this messenger repeatedly pointed away from himself to the message he carried. As prophet, teacher and champion of God’s dominion, Jesus bid us see not himself but the will of God.
But to return to my childish rumination: gifts are not simply the bearers of words. Their message is not just what is written on their wrapping. They also speak their love by their quality, their thoughtfulness, their expense and value. See here how I love you, how I think of you, how much you mean to me! And this quality of gift seems to be part of what has happened at Christmas: the Word itself is made flesh, and so the flesh of Jesus is the message now. God seems to say, "See, this is how much. Now do you know? Do you understand?"
This Word, then, is not simply a message you can put into words. It comes as a person, a life enfleshed and enacted. It has to do with compassion and vision, but there is also something frightening about it, a kind of desperate insistence. If you won’t listen to the law and the prophets, maybe now you’ll see. God, so vulnerable, casting this unphilosophical proposition into our world, this baby, is dependent on our response. Now even the cross that lies ahead begins to seem like an adolescent’s thought of suicide: Then maybe their hearts will be moved, then they’ll know how I love them.
The messenger and the message are thus joined. Even in those tellings of the gospel in which Jesus struggles against this identification, it proves finally to be so. The Word is enfleshed, born to die. In John that identity is simply laid out from the start, majestic in its claim and challenge.
As I continued to puzzle in various Christmas morning pews, I still sensed something wrong in this way of thinking about the Word made flesh. Something was untrue to the sweet grace and exultation of the day.
It came to me one year when I had made a gift for someone I loved: sometimes you don’t care whether they know who gave the gift. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter whether your name is on it, or what it’s saying about you and your feelings. You’re not the point. You just want to make this person happy and to see her pleasure. Gifts — like words — are not always and only messages, units of communication. Sometimes they are simply expressive, the exclamations of our hearts and hopes. They may communicate, but the sending of a message is not the intent. In such giving we forget ourselves and just watch. Our delight is in the delight of the other.
So it is with the gift Mary holds on Christmas morning. In desire for us, God has forgotten himself. The words and implications come later; but now, first, the Word is an infant and cannot, need not, speak.