Reverend, Warren R. Carswell
"And God himself is born:" A Christmas hymn devotion
A UMC.org Feature by Joe Iovino*
We begin life remarkably vulnerable. Infants have no ability to care for themselves, but need loving adults to nurture them, keep them warm, protect them, and show them that the world is a safe, loving place.
This was also true of the baby Jesus. He came into the world much like you and I did. He needed Mary, Joseph and others to feed, hold, change, and teach him.
Jesus, however, was far from ordinary. We profess this child, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, is God in the flesh. How can this be?
United Methodist pastor the Rev. Paul Chilcote is the author of a book of Advent and Christmas devotions based on the hymns of Charles Wesley.
In the December 2016 Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast episode, the Rev. Paul Chilcote, United Methodist author of Come Thou Long-expected Jesus: Advent and Christmas with Charles Wesley, calls this "a central paradox of the Christian faith. How do we conceive that God, who is eternal and not bounded by time or space or any of those kind of limitations, how do we conceive that that God becomes a human being?"
Theologians call this paradox the incarnation. Somehow, Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
A poetic response: As one might expect from the poet-theologian of the early Methodist movement, Charles Wesley's descriptions of this paradox are biblical, beautiful and poetic.
For example, hymn 6 of his Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord reads:
Whom all the angels worship, See the stupendous blessing
Lies hid in human nature; Which God to us hath given!
Incarnate see A child of man,
The deity, In length a span,
he infinite Creator! Who fills both earth and heaven. (verse 4)
Theologians through the centuries have tried to explain how this works. For the most part, they have limited success in describing it well. You can learn more about our United Methodist understanding of the incarnation here and here.
While it may be tempting to assign this doctrine to the areas of our faith that we cannot understand or describe, Chilcote encourages us to look to Wesley.
"I don't want to simply escape into mystery here, because Charles does everything he can to try and explain it," Chilcote shares, "to try and make some sense of this mystery in our lives."
Wesley's key to understanding the incarnation lies in Philippians 2:5-11, which many scholars believe is one of the earliest hymns of the Christian church.
It shouldn't be a surprise that one great hymn writer was inspired by another.
In this Bible passage, the Apostle Paul describes the miracle of Jesus emptying himself of his God-traits to become a human being.
For example, Jesus emptied himself of his omnipresence, being everywhere all the time. Instead, he was confined to time and space. He gave up his omniscience, being all-knowing. While he could see into people's lives and hearts better than anyone, he had limited, human knowledge. He also surrendered his omnipotence, being all-powerful. He performed miracles, healings and exorcisms, but there were human limits he accepted.
Jesus emptied himself and became vulnerable for us.
Philippians 2 not only describes how this happens, it is also a call to each of us to empty ourselves for others as Christ has emptied himself for us. This Christmas we can give thanks for the gift of a vulnerable baby by emptying ourselves of all but love for someone in need.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.
Grace and Peace,