In my friend’s church, they apparently won’t sing any carols that mention snow or three kings or other non-biblical additions to the Nativity story. All their Christmas songs have to be scripturally and historically accurate.
Now I see this as a failure of imagination, and a failure to fully understand Incarnation – not to mention a fairly poor approach to Scripture. As well as just deadly dull.
As my wife put it, the spiritual value of a carol doesn’t stem from its ability to accurately depict the weather conditions in 1st-century Palestine.
God with us
The Incarnation has many aspects and is about many things, which I’m hoping to look at in more detail next time (probably post-Christmas). And one tremendously important aspect is the Incarnation of Christ within our cultural setting, within our time and place, our geography and landscape (both physical and mental).
In other words, the Incarnation means that Jesus always comes to us primarily as One of Us, here and now, in our own context and situation. When he came to the first-century Palestinian Jews, he came to them as a first-century Palestinian Jew himself; but that’s not primarily how he comes to us now.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the gospels contain no physical descriptions of Jesus whatsoever, and very little in the way of other personal information or even personal history. Nor do they go into great detail to explain local geography. All this would be a distraction, tying Christ to a specific set of physical and local conditions which were true and meaningful then, but which would not be directly meaningful to anyone else throughout history.
That’s also why the Bible needs to be translated, not just into our language but our idioms, our cultural and linguistic and mental frameworks. That’s part of what incarnation means. God speaking in our language, directly to us. God with us, among us. Emmanuel.
Redemption from within
So Renaissance paintings of Jesus looking like a Renaissance man are not ‘wrong’ per se. They depict Jesus as he was to them, incarnated into their setting and culture. These images may no longer be meaningful for us, and we clearly can’t treat them as accurately representative of the historical Jesus. But they do represent an important principle.
Similarly, when Anglo-Saxon poets imagined Jesus as a warrior-king fighting a battle with evil on the cross, this was not wrong either. For them, this was the way Christ became incarnate in their culture; how he came to redeem their particular worldview and way of life. Other more peaceable cultures will ‘image’ Jesus differently; his incarnation in their cultures will look different. But the outcome is the same – Jesus comes to inhabit their world (and our world) and so to change and redeem that world from within.
And it’s the same of course with Christmas carols about snow or bleak mid-winters or draughty stables or little donkeys and three kings. We know they probably aren’t historically accurate, but they are (or can be) incarnationally and/or imaginatively accurate. They incarnate Christ within a particular setting. The historical accuracy is in many ways beside the point here.
Now I’m not saying that historical accuracy is always or entirely beside the point. Quite the contrary. I still think it’s very important that Jesus came to us as a real historical person in a real historical setting, and I’m not trying to take away from the reality or factuality of Jesus’ life. But because we do have the gospel accounts of what ‘actually’ happened set down for us, we’re now free to translate that into other settings – not to replace the original, but to incarnationally re-imagine it.
Many people see the Bible as a blueprint for life, imagining that we have to do things ‘biblically’, meaning ‘exactly as they did it in the Bible’. In some cases this is taken to ridiculous degrees, like dressing or eating biblically, or only using biblical instruments in worship. Others maintain that we would be better Christians if we adopted first-century Jewish customs and thought patterns.
I do believe the Bible is our blueprint, but it’s the blueprint for incarnation. In other words, we don’t have to slavishly copy exactly how 1st-century Jewish Christians did things. Rather, the Bible shows us what it’s like when God enters into the world, and into people’s lives. It shows us incarnation, and frees us up to follow that principle in our own very different contexts.
So I do think it’s important to understand the culture and context and idioms of the Bible – but only so that we can then translate those back into our own; not so that we can adopt the ‘biblical’ ones as our own. Which is why I think it’s a poor approach to scripture to insist that everything we sing or do be ‘biblically accurate’.
Returning then to Christmas carols, of course most of the ones we sing were written by and for people of other times and cultures. As such, they may no longer fully ‘incarnate’ Jesus to us within our own modern settings. But that doesn’t mean they have no value or meaning for us – any more than the Bible has no meaning or value just because it’s primarily written in and for a very different time and culture from our own. And perhaps the chief value these carols have is to show us the principle of incarnation in action.
Jesus is always himself
Of course, all this doesn’t mean we can just make Jesus whatever we want him to be, acculturating him so much within our cultural norms that he retains none of his uniqueness or otherness or divinity. Jesus is never a product of our culture, even if he’s willing to wear its clothes and speak in its idioms. In his incarnated humanity Jesus is always one of us; but in his divinity he is always himself and always ‘other’. We can’t with any validity imagine Jesus as a Nazi or a pornographer or a football hooligan, even if those are the contexts we ourselves inhabit (though I don’t imagine many of my readers do).
The crucial point is that Jesus doesn’t come merely to validate our way of life, to bless it and say that it’s all okay. He comes into it as the only way to meet us and reach us, but he comes to redeem and transform our world and our culture – to change it. He doesn’t leave our world the same as it was when he entered it; his very entry into it changes it.
Imagination and incarnation
And if Jesus’s birth was, as C.S. Lewis maintained, the point when Myth became Fact, maybe the process also now works the other way. Perhaps the divine Fact is now free to re-enter our worlds as ‘myth’ – the same unchanging Truth and Reality but re-imaged or re-imagined within our own mental landscapes. Lewis himself gave us an illustration of this when he incarnated Christ in his own imagined world of Narnia as the great lion Aslan.
For ‘imagination’ is strongly linked with ‘incarnation’. Incarnation literally means enfleshment. It’s the physical embodying of something non-physical or non-bodily – an idea or spirit or principle, such as love or truth or mercy. Incarnation makes the non-material touchable and the spiritual physical. Imagination is making an image or picture of something that previously existed only as an idea. It makes the invisible visible.
Jesus is the divine Word or ‘Logos’ become flesh; he is the light and life of love of God come down to earth in a physical human body. He’s also the true Image of God, the visible picture of the invisible divine. If we merely try to re-make Jesus into our own mirror image, we construct an idol. But if we let the real Jesus incarnate himself into our world and our lives, he becomes an Icon – the true image of God with us, among us, one of us.
So perhaps we should write carols about Jesus born in, say, rainy modern suburbia and visited by street cleaners rather than shepherds. They’d doubtless be artistically terrible, but they might well be spiritually superlative. Anyone fancy trying?