The Way Prepared

3.1 The World of Jesus

It is a very peculiar thing. God, Creator and beyond time and space, is found in a womb, constrained by birth, in a particular place and a particular time.

What about all the other places and people and times? Why then, and why there?

Short answer as to why there – because this is the area of land, in all its vulnerabilities where God had already revealed himself to his people, even if they were not really understanding it.

Why then? We do not know.

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest Empires of all time, but it did not cover the world by any means, only the Mediterranean and some more, though within that area it did bring a sort of stability and a movement of people.

It was religiously diverse, ethnically mixed, but Greek was a language that many could understand.

It is one of the mysteries and deeper questions of our faith: Why?

For the other religions it was an arrogant claim that God had revealed himself exclusively in this one person. For almost all it was absurd that God had revealed himself in the form of a “servant”, had suffered and died. Even today, Islam, which has a high regard for Jesus as a prophet, does not accept that he was crucified. How could God suffer in such a way? Indeed, how or why would God be born in dangerous times, at such risk – and Matthew’s gospel highlights this with Herod’s attempt to kill the baby at birth.

We have probably got too used to our creeds. Some call it the scandal of particularity; how can we claim Jesus is the one? A prophet maybe, a good teacher, certainly, a leader of the people, ok, one among many avatars of God, if you like, but the one and only ‘Son of God’, the one and only time God became human – that takes a lot of accepting.

Some don’t want God to become human at all – and some would argue that there are many who show us something of God by their virtuous lives. Christians accept the second – we celebrate the saints after all, but in Jesus all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell as Colossians puts it.

As we get nearer to Christmas what does it mean to worship Jesus, born of Mary, as the Word made flesh, begotten not made as the Creed says.

Fully God and fully human pushes our understanding beyond what it can cope with, and to understand the fully human, we need to learn more about the world into which Jesus was born.

We will find it has some general similarities with the modern world, and also was very different from our Western world in particular.

This week we will look a bit more at this world and how the Gospel writers – in their four rather different ways – seek to explain and proclaim Jesus.

The Letter to the Hebrews begins like this:

Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. (Heb 1:1)

In the ancient world, life was understood to come primarily from the man, from his ‘seed’ which was planted in a fertile woman. The woman’s egg was not known about. Life came from a man and a son was a full representation of the father, while a daughter was not, as she was different.

In this world view, God is male, the one who generates life, and Jesus is male, the perfect representation of the Father. We no longer hold to such an understanding of how life starts, and we can see how such a view was patriarchal and led to women being seen as second-class. Rightly we should challenge all such understandings, but it may help us to see how the ancient world thought about things. We may also want to acknowledge the unique and vital role that Mary plays in this drama. [But explorations of gender and human identity are for a different project!] Hebrews in its language also identifies Jesus, uniquely, as the God-man, and the Christian Faith is exclusive and particular in claiming that this person, this particular individual is not simply a good person, or even a remarkable person, but much more, he is God in human form, and, as it happens, living in that place, that culture, that time, that family. One among the billions who have lived. About whom the word “unique” is truly and properly to be used. Scandalous!