Seeing the incarnation
Given Charles Wesley’s eloquence in his well-known hymns celebrating the nativity, it may come as a surprise that John Wesley never published a Christmas sermon. The Wesley brothers, however, were of their time, and their time was one in which Puritan disdain for the merriment and revelry associated with Christmas had all but removed it from the British Church’s calendar.
Charles’ hymns, therefore, are all the more striking set against this background. Beginning in the 1740s, Charles published and republished several collections of seasonal hymns, including numerous editions of the popular two-penny Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord. His words typically express wonderment at the fact of incarnation, and an earnest longing for an experience of Christ’s coming in the believer’s life.
One of Charles Wesley’s poems written for Christmas Day, published recently from his previously unpublished manuscripts, begins with this stanza:
God in our flesh is seen
(While angels ask, how can it be?)
And dwells with sinful men!
Our nature He assumes,
That we may his retrieve;
He comes, to our dead world He comes,
That all thro’ Him may live.
(from The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley Volume III, p106)
The word he emphasised here – seen – reflects Wesley’s profound understanding of the way in which the event of incarnation impacts and transforms the ‘dead world’. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnate Deity, is nothing less than an epiphany. As the letter to Titus has it, ‘the kindness of God appeared’ (Titus 3:4). These words – epiphany, appearance, seeing – should not be taken to mean that Wesley was docetic (an early mistaken explanation of the incarnation which suggested that Jesus only ‘appeared’ or ‘seemed’ to be human). The human nature of Jesus is not mere appearance, but a tangible and gracious reality. It matters, eternally and universally, that God in Christ is ‘cloth’d with our Flesh and in a Manger laid’ (from another of Charles’ unpublished Christmas poems).
What Wesley stresses is that to acknowledge the fact of incarnation is important but insufficient; God took on flesh not merely to be believed, but also to be seen. In brother John’s favourite Christmas hymn, ‘All glory to God in the sky’, Charles poetically claims that the epiphany of incarnation began with the natural universe, and continues in the epiphanies of believers today:
When thou in our flesh didst appear
All nature acknowledged thy birth…
O wouldst thou again be made known,
Again in thy Spirit descend…
Here, then, is a rationale for celebrating Christmas, drawn straight from the Wesleyan tradition: the incarnation is truly to be seen, and in such seeing we become lost in wonder, love and praise.
Seeing the incarnation, of course, is not straightforward, living as we do so many centuries after the event. Urged by Wesley’s hymns to ‘see’, however, Methodists around the world – along with other Christians – find creative ways to do just that. I asked members of the Wesley House community to share the ways Christmas is celebrated in their home contexts, and here are a couple of their reflections.
First, from one of our associate faculty, the Revd Dr Tim Macquiban, a Mission Partner in Rome:
We owe the origins of our nativity scenes, especially popular in churches and sacred spaces in Italy at this time of year, to Saint Francis, who created a live nativity scene on Christmas Eve 1223. He was perhaps inspired by this idea after visiting Bethlehem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—the humble stable in a cave there. Francis recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a service he held inside of a cave in Greccio, Italy, inviting both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration. He is reported later as saying: “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”
Francis set up an empty manger (the feeding trough of farm animals which served as Jesus’ crib) inside a cave, and even included a live ox and donkey beside the manger trying to imagine what happened that first Christmas night. The tradition caught on in Italy and many such nativity scenes were reproduced often taking on aspects of the local context and always proclaiming the humility and simplicity of the mystery of the incarnation. Every year a nativity scene from different parts of Italy is set up in St. Peter`s Square Rome as thousands gather to reflect on the story of Christmas.
Such nativity scenes, which we have all around us now, help us to ‘see’ the incarnation in at least two ways. First, they enable us to appreciate that ‘flesh’ is nothing other than our flesh. The first nativity scenes of Italy, like many other pieces of religious artwork, took on characteristics of the local surroundings. They help us to see: God came to us. Secondly, ‘seeing’ these nativities reminds us that God is not merely an idea, our best thought, our highest ambition; rather, God comes in real and unexpected humility and simplicity, physically inhabiting time and space – a God who happens, and who, as surely as we can see and handle these nativity sets, was seen and held by his mother, by his friends, by people just like us.
One of our American students, Kevin Highfield, responded with the following memory:
At one United Methodist Church in which I served we had a service of ‘Posada’. This tradition comes from Latin America where children often perform nine Posada processions before Christmas. Posada is Spanish for inn or lodging. A couple dress up as Mary and Joseph and they look for a place to stay. They are refused at all but the last, but usually each of the nine locations have a mini-fiesta prepared for the church members. The last Posada procession ends at the door of the church itself and they are let in to the church service, and it is a joy-filled time for all. There is a liturgy for it in the United Methodist Church hymnal. It is a great celebration of the birth of Jesus and the children enjoy the many processions.
‘Seeing’ here goes hand in hand with ‘enacting’, with ‘feeling’ and ‘experiencing’ the hope and fear, the tiredness and relief, the heartache and joy that accompanied the birth of Jesus all those years ago. Celebrating the incarnation requires that we pay attention to the particularities of human life, and to the utter graciousness by which God takes them to himself. ‘Seeing’ Christmas isn’t about closing our eyes and imagining a scene of unnatural bliss. ‘Seeing’ God take our flesh pushes us into our world, into prayer, into longing, into service, and into an utter dependence on the God without whom we and our world remain dead.
As Douglas Ncebere, one of our Kenyan students, put it:
In Kenya, Christmas is a time of communal celebration and spiritual rejuvenation. It is a time for family members and friends to eat together and reconnect. Tidying the home and wearing smart clothes is expected, and is accompanied with preparing delicious dishes. Thus, ‘what shall I wear?’ and ‘what shall we eat?’ are serious Christmas questions. Sometimes they can make or break individuals, relationships, or families and Christmas can therefore turn out to be a source of joy or sorrow depending on how you celebrate. Due to this, the Christian message over Christmas is central. The message is usually centred on the prophetic proclamations of Isaiah (7:14; 9:6) and in the Gospel of Matthew (ch.1) and Luke (2:1-20). People are moved to renew their life of faith, or are invited to give their lives to Jesus. This commitment to newness shapes the season until the New Year, climaxing with the covenant service whose main theme is the renewing of one’s relationship with God in Christ.
Charles Wesley’s hymns may indeed have played their part in reviving the celebration of Christmas over the past centuries, and are now an established feature of our Christmas tradition. But, as we sing them, let us be prompted to an ever new ‘seeing’ of our Lord, bringer of light and life, ‘ris’n with healing in His wings’.
- How have you ‘seen’ the incarnation this Christmas? Did you ‘see’ it in the same way as you have before? Or did you ‘see’ something new or different?
- Look up Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymns in a hymn book or on the internet. Could you prayerfully use one or more of them in your devotions this week?
- How might others ‘see’ the incarnation in the way you live and worship?
This article was first published in the Methodist Recorder on 21st December 2018