How Much of God is With Us?
At Christmas, we love to sing Oh, Come, Oh Come, Immanuel. We celebrate that God is with us. This Christmas, ponder how much of God is with us in the baby born in Bethlehem. For Christians in the earliest centuries, this was a serious theological issue.
A man worked hard to tear out the cracked concrete in his driveway. He rented a concrete mixer and poured and finished the new slab. Job done, he and his wife ran an errand. When they returned, they discovered neighborhood children writing their names on the freshly poured concrete. He got very upset and chased them off. His wife challenged him and said she thought he liked children. “I do in the abstract,” he said, “but not in the concrete.”
In the child Jesus, we have God in the physical, concrete form of human flesh. We love especially the baby in Bethlehem. But we struggle to make sense of Immanuel who is God in the philosophical abstract. The Gospels present Jesus as the Son of God. It took several church councils in the fourth century to conclude that Jesus is very God of very God. The key at Christmas is that God took the initiative to come to us humans. Yet we have to start with knowing him in his human form. The alternate story in early Christianity was how Jesus of Nazareth became God.
Realize that this issue was so intense that it led to street fights in Alexandria between the Arians and the Athanasians in the fourth century. The followers of Arius taught that by definition a god cannot become human, and Jesus was only the Son of God. The orthodox faith, championed by Athanasius, prevailed in the councils and gave us the philosophical language of the Athanasian Creed, in which we recognize Jesus as the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.
The Holy Spirit is Key to the Mystery
To unravel this mystery of the concrete and the abstract God takes yet a third form of God. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. The baby Jesus was begotten in Mary by the Spirit. When the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in 1952, it was rejected by some because of its translation of the famous verse in Isaiah 7 that “a young woman will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Emmanuel.” It wasn’t just a young woman but a virgin who had not known a man. Both Matthew and Luke are very clear about that. The mind boggles at how this can be. What kind of DNA did Jesus have? Far from a mere detail, the Virgin Birth is basic to understanding Immanuel.
We confess that the Holy Spirit is coequal with the Father and the Son. He is the Lord and giver of spiritual life. The Spirit empowered Jesus to begin his ministry at his baptism by John, when the voice from heaven announced that Jesus was his Son and the Holy Spirit came down upon him as a dove. Later, when Jesus returned from the concrete to the abstract at his Ascension, the Spirit at Pentecost extended his special power to those he called to follow Jesus.
The Spirit is the key to experiencing Christmas as a faith event, not just a public holiday. God does not leave us to wrestle with his philosophical identity. He sends his Spirit to turn Immanuel from mere words to heartfelt conviction. Such faith in trying to understand itself can be enriched by words confessed in the church’s ancient creeds.
The Son of God
We know Jesus with the main title of Christ, the Anointed One. The Apostles also knew him as the Son of God. That is how Mark introduces him at the beginning of his Gospel.
But this title Son of God leaves ambiguity about the relationship between the concrete, the man Jesus, and the abstract God, the Supreme Being. It was used for centuries to describe a political leader who was especially effective. The title of Son of God was controversial for believers because several decades before Jesus’ birth, the Roman emperor Caesar Octavius had been given the title “Son of God” by the Roman Senate for bringing the Roman Civil War to an end. That’s when he became Caesar Augustus, the Revered. Subsequent Caesars kept the title of Son of God. It was a political statement.
The Roman Empire was falling apart with more civil wars in the latter part of the 200s. For thirty years dozens of generals competed for supreme power. The decline was blamed on the Christians because they did not honor the pagan gods. This resulted in the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian (303-312 A.D). The test was whether a Christian would honor Caesar as the Son of God. Many believers affirmed so as a civic statement. Others saw it as a religious claim, refused to agree, and suffered the consequences of torture and execution.
Very God of Very God
Was Jesus of Nazareth the real God or was he only a semi-God? Was the concrete man also the abstract God? This issue preoccupied Christians in the fourth century after the persecutions ended when Constantine prevailed and issued his Edict of Tolerance for Christians in the Empire. Firmly in political control of the Christian churches, he insisted that the bishops find agreement on what this church believed. Defining who Jesus is proved to be elusive. The impoverished western church headquartered in Rome spoke Latin. Constantine chose to rule the Empire from the wealthy Eastern half, which spoke Greek. In popular Greek culture, a god by definition cannot be a man. There was a strong preference for the more ambiguous Son-of-God concept.
Insisting on unity, Emperor Constantine called the bishops of the empire together in the Eastern city of Nicea in 325. The result we have today is the Nicene Creek, confessed regularly in liturgical churches. It is bewildering to anyone unfamiliar with the theological vocabulary of that day. Here we confess phrases such as the Lord Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, very God of very God and Light of Light.
Being of One Substance With the Father
But this very abstract language did not yet end the debate. The Arians continued in strength and kept forcing the issue. Finally, the largest council of bishops convened more than a century later in the city of Chalcedon and introduced yet more abstract philosophical language. We confess their formula as the Athanasian Creed.
The new word in Greek was ousia, “essence.” In Latin, it became “substance.” The Son is of the same essence/substance as the Father. Each is God. But even though they are of the same essence, they are different. The word chosen for how they are different was “person, meaning mask. While they were finalizing their formula, they included the Holy Spirit as the third Person in the Godhead. And so we confess three Persons who act as one God—the Triune God. With this confession, the Christian reached the limits of abstract language.
Immanuel, God With Us
Why tell the story of these creeds at Christmas time? Because they add weight to the simple phrase “Immanuel,” the God who came to us as the baby Jesus born to Mary and Joseph. In his master plan, God knew the frailty of the human language for expressing the ultimate truth. He invites us to understand himself in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Appreciate that there is more to Christmas than joy and peace at the arrival of a little baby. We are confronting the great mystery of ultimate realities. Be like the illiterate shepherds, who had to process the terrifying truth of seeing the host of angelic beings shining with the overwhelming supernatural brightness of the glory of God. Worship the Immanuel, the very God of very God, who came to us in the flesh. It is a mystery. Feel the weight of it. Then the joy and peace of Christmas will rise up within you.