Right now, in the Advent and Christmas seasons, there is a lot of talk about Christ being born: about God becoming a human person, appearing in human form and so on.
Making some sense of the reality of this claim is an enormous task: God, in one human person, within God’s own creation.
For many people, of course, the question is whether such a claim can possibly be true. I would tackle this question in a different way: I think it helps to ask, ‘How can we know this?’ Or, to put it in another way, if we were to know this, what kind of knowledge is it?
I don’t think it’s a matter of believing some things, about something which is said to have happened a long time ago, and refusing to consider other evidence or possibilities. I don’t think that’s faith at all. It has no creative and life-giving dimensions whatsoever.
What I think this means is something to be known in a personal and communal experience, in the present, which in some ways helps us to understand the past, and yet is also shaped by the past.
Recently, I found this quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.
I must have read it before, but it struck me this time: p. 359, "One has to live for some time in community to understand that Christ is ‘formed’ in it’." There is a reference here to Galations 4. 19, where Paul uses an image
of childbirth, saying that he (the Apostle) is ‘inthe pain of
childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ For Paul, too, there is this idea not only that Christ was a human person who lived in his recent past, but that Christ yet lives, and yet embodies, takes shape: Paul was convinced that the community of Christians, made alive in the Spirit, really is a living body of Christ, an incarnation of the same God who appeared to us as Jesus of Nazareth.
Bonhoeffer, especially in his Ethics, was interested in the idea that Christ ‘takes shape’ and ‘is formed’ in the world.
This was his idea of whatever is meaningful in ‘the church’. It is a community in which Christ is taking shape. And to put it another way, his view was that wherever Christ is taking shape in the world that is where the church needs to be, where Christian people need to find themselves involved.
Incarnation is not an idea about once upon a time. It is a divine habit, indeed a divine habitation. It is something God perpetually does, and invites us to know, to be part of. This knowing is a present experience. We can discover ourselves becoming part of the ‘taking shape’, and Bonhoeffer rightly sees that this is something we learn in community, in deep and committed relationships.
More than that, such communities, usually informed and shaped by the story and vision which Jesus offered, his Gospel of God, also find that through these experiences of community, this sense of Christ taking shape among, within, between them, they can also more clearly comprehend the historic claims, the idea of God being ‘incarnate’, born among us, in the person of Jesus, in a messy world of power games and political intrigues, and little people being pushed aside, abused, slaughtered, and religion playing along with it all, for its own self-preservation.
We can believe that, because this is our reality too, and yet, —yet— we dare t acknowledge that within us, in our community, even , Christ is formed.
There’s a lot to think on, and to hope for, amidst the words and music and all the rest which is called ‘Christmas’, the birth of Christ.