So there I was, lying awake at 5am. I am often grateful for fresh revelations from the Spirit, but a little less so when it is before sunrise. Yet for some reason, I could not take my mind off it. I could not simply fall back asleep.
I have a favorite painting which if you attend Waratah church, you perhaps would have heard me talk about it before. It also happens to be on the cover of what I think was Henri Nouwen’s greatest book; a study on the ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ by the Dutch master Rembrandt.
In case you’re not familiar with it, here it is below:
It was this image that I could not get out of my mind. Noticing again the warm light emanating from the embrace of the Father. The masculine hand on the right and the feminine hand on the left signifying both the security and gentleness of the father’s embrace. The varying faces of the spectators hiding their grappling with such a profound moment under expressions of indifference, the distance, even judgment. The warmth of the light falling on the older brother, but his clasped together hands signifying a struggle to accept such warmth. I could go on.
But all of these features and more were not what I could get out of my mind this particular morning. You see, they say before I had been grappling with what I am to present at our annual carols event, so my head was so full of carols/Christmas stuff that every thought was in that context. Then it hit me like a bolt from the blue:
The ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ and a newfound similarity with Christmas nativity scenes.
I just googled ‘nativity scene’ and this is one of the first images that appeared:
Classic kids’ bible stuff right? But stay with me here and let me ask you:
Where is the light coming from? Where are all the faces drawn to? Who’s hands are included in the embrace? How fancy does the building look? In an age before the electric light globe, we forget that the actual birth of Jesus out the back of an Inn with the animals would be actually quite dark. But painters through the ages use artistic light to convey the spiritual ‘light’ that is coming, bursting into the situation. That is precisely what Rembrandt does in his painting of the prodigal. The source of light that illuminates the faces looking in is coming from the spiritual light of the embrace.
Now, the penny drops; ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son” IS a nativity scene; not of Jesus being born of Mary, but of Jesus being born in a person. Does not even the famous carol say: “be born in us today”- O little town of Bethlehem.
Do not miss the significance of this. Let me explain why.
Here’s the revelation that God was banging on the door of my mind to tell me a 5am. Christmas tells a story of the Spiritual invading the physical in the person of Jesus. That is incarnation. That is also a decent definition of what it means to be born again.
Let’s face it, Mary was told that birth of Jesus is a direct result of the ‘Spirit coming upon her’. Jesus later defines being born again as being born of the Spirit. As I look into the soft glow of the nativity scene, I realize I am peering into an archetypal moment, an illustration of what God can do in me.
That is good news.
I am also wondering if we struggle so much with the idea of what it means to be born again because we have so left the doctrine of incarnation out of so much of our modern conversations like the chicken that went off in the fridge last month and no one has dared to open the container and chuck it out yet. Interestingly, it seems we’re not the first to do this.
John 3:1–21 details a conversation between a highly religious person (Nicodemus) and Jesus. He, of course, comes to see Jesus at night principally because he is a little bit embarrassed either to be a) seen with Jesus and b) admit that he’s getting a sneaking suspicion that in all of his religious practice, he may in fact not actually know what he’s talking about. I think it’s telling that Nicodemus is surprised and confused about the idea of being born again which Jesus elaborates on. I think it’s even more interesting that Jesus says in 3:10 that he, frankly, shouldn’t be. Nicodemus and so many others missed who Jesus was because their religious framework did not allow for incarnation.
But should they have? Is Jesus being a bit harsh? Is there anything in the Old Testament that deals with the idea of God taking two separate concepts and perfectly unifying them in one person? Yes, read the Psalms, particularly 110, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. (I’ll leave the rest for you to figure out.)
Anyway, we are also without excuse. One of the few terms in Scripture that should apparently be a complete ‘no-brainer’ is the concept of being born again. Yet alas there is some debate over what Jesus means. Why? I believe it is because we don’t talk about Incarnation in a post-enlightenment atmosphere that so often boils faith down to nothing more than a series of propositional beliefs. Even as I write this, I am concerned that no one will be able to walk out of a year of Chruch attendance at Waratah and ever be able to say; “He never really did get around to talking about Incarnation.”
Do we struggle with articulating what it means to be born again, and moreover do we miss what Jesus is doing in our communities because we, like Nico, have neglected the theology of incarnation? I believe so.
Christmas is telling us that God needs to dwell in the flesh; all the experiences of human life, in order for him to….well, dwell in our flesh and the entire moment by moment experience of human life….and redeem it.
So what is the greatest Christmas gift that Christians can give to the world around us? This: a clarion vision of the incarnation and what it means for daily life.