Advent: God Deep in the Flesh

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CHICAGO, IL (December 12, 2008) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each Friday during Advent, we will share one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine. Today’s installment first appeared in December 1994.

By Dr. John Weborg

Theodosius Harnack, Luther scholar of note, said that for Luther the imperative was to have “God deep in the flesh.” Christmas celebrates just that: God deep in the flesh. So great was God’s longing for his creatures’ redemption, says Luther, that God’s preference for human nature over angelic nature might even have provoked the angels to jealousy! But Psalm 8 nudges that issue: what are human beings that you are mindful of them? They have been made a bit lower than angels, but crowned with glory and honor. A preference for humans: in that lies the Christmas gospel.

Preference translated into participation. God deep in the flesh. Deep in Mary’s womb. Peter Chrysologus, fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, tried to bend his mind around that act of condescension:

Truly blessed,
for she was greater than heaven,
Stronger than earth,
Wider than the universe.
She who welcomed in her womb
The One whom the world cannot contain,
The One who rules the universe.
She became the mother of her creator,
Nourished him who sustained all living things.

Bengel: “People need to climb up through the humanity of Christ to the divinity of Christ.”

There is God in the flesh, thriving in a placenta, protected by a water bag, bouncing on a donkey ride to Bethlehem where his folks had to meet the local IRS. No different than any other baby at the time. While God preferred human nature to the angelic, God asked no human favors and got none. When inns are full they are full. Sleep where one can. God deep in the flesh became God deep in the straw. Mary, the mother of the Creator, sustained the one who sustained all the living.

About a century and a half after Luther, a German Pietist, Johann Albrecht Bengel, said that people need to climb up through the humanity of Christ to the divinity of Christ. That is why the gospel stories portray a Jesus not only deep in the flesh, but deep in the crowds, deep in controversy as he extended care to the same kind of people who visited him when he was deep in the straw. I mean people without civil rights like shepherds and total strangers like the Magi. Now he returns the favor: they visited him, representatives so to speak of humanity who found their consolation deep in the straw, the one for whom they had long been waiting. Now he plunges into human life to visit those whom shepherds and Magi represented. No one is off limits. The welcome that Mary and Joseph extended at the manger is now offered by their son. Mary trained him well! His humanity was the access point to God – God hidden deep in the flesh.

And finally, there is God deep in the grave, sharing the same earth from which all humans had been made in the first place. The story doesn’t end six feet under. Just as he shared a death like ours, so we will share a resurrection like his.

In praise of this God we join Paul Gerhardt and say:

Love caused thy incarnation,
Love brought thee down to me;
Thy thirst for my salvation
Procured my liberty.

O Love beyond all telling
That led thee to embrace,
In love all love excelling,
Our lost and fallen race! (O How Shall I Receive Thee)

Editor’s note: to read previously published columns as part of this special Advent series, search for the following stories:
•    Advent: Holiday Time and the Fullness of Time
•    Advent: Hard Sayings: God With Us!

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