Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

Disability and Difference

18 months have passed since I first began working with people with disabilities. It has been a varied experience, sometimes vacillating between joy and frustration, confidence and uncertainty. It’s true to say, I think, that I have grown throughout my experiences, and part of that growth concerns my burgeoning reflections upon the way my work implicitly challenges the manner in which I view disability. It happens constantly, and those challenges are diverse. Thus, any attempt at crystallization is bound to flatten out differences, and smooth over the rough edges of (as yet) incomplete thoughts on the subject. Still, I want to share what I have learned so far, in the hope that our perspectives on disability and “normalcy” might be transformed. At the very least, I trust that what follows will stimulate fruitful thinking within those for whom this field is a foreign land.

As part of this project, I want to focus on three key images: faithfulness, patience and humility. They are emphatically informed by my experiences during my time in the industry, and, what’s more, neatly dovetail with important aspects of Christian theology. Those reading this blog who are Christians will recognize the three images I have listed as qualities that are deeply interwoven into an authentic life of Christ-following discipleship. As such, the present essay can be read on more than one level: first, as a series of reflections on the upending of assumptions as a result of working alongside people with disabilities; and, second, as a glimpse* of the relationship between theological contemplation and a fresh understanding of disability.

Let me begin with the first image I listed above, faithfulness. This came to mind as I was supporting a gentleman who is visually impaired, and has a mild intellectual disability. He had invited me into his room at home (which he shares with two other people), so that I could help him read some mail he’d recently received. As I entered the room, I noticed a small plaque on the wall. It was in recognition of the gentleman’s 45 years of dedicated service at the same organisation at which he still works. I was immediately struck by the man’s length of service. Every week day since 1965 (the plaque was from 2010), this gentleman had been rising at 5.00am in order to ready himself for work at the same place of business. By the time I was born, he’d been working there for 19 years. My relative youth put things into perspective, and I was deeply impressed by the gentleman’s daily consistency. Moreover, I was made to feel a little inadequate: I had barely entered the workforce, and this man, despite his disability, had been devoted to his workplace for more than a generation. He had been eminently faithful to the organisation, creating a life marked by reliability, conscientiousness and industry.

What the above gentleman taught me was that having a disability can actually (in this case, at least) open one up to the possibility of a long-standing commitment to something worthwhile. He may not have had the same opportunities as others to better himself. He may have been denied the chance to pursue gifts and ambitions. But, in giving himself to the same job, the same organisation, for two-thirds of his life, this gentleman has evidently been able to develop a deeply respected – but frequently eschewed – virtue. His disability has, as far as I can see, allowed him to acquire a habit of mind and body that is so deeply lacking in modern life. By combining a high estimation for the dignity of work with a staunch, untempered commitment, this gentleman has developed a mature – and enviable – sense of fidelity. What might be seen as a weakness has actually been transformed into a strong, reliable steadfastness, running counter to, and deeply challenging, prevailing values. More of that anon.

So much for faithfulness. What about the next image, patience? It could be said that the above gentleman exhibited this quality as well. However, this image was conjured in the course of working with another man. He has a significant intellectual disability, which means that a task that might take me a few moments may take him five minutes. He is learning skills that I simply take for granted, and does so at a pace that, to me at least, seems quite slow.

At first, I must admit to struggling with the amount of time taken to complete what seemed to me basic activities. To my shame, I would sometimes hold onto a silent frustration. As time went on, though, I learned to become more patient, as I observed and supported this man whilst he slowly and methodically got himself changed for a session at the gym, or retrieved some money to pay for a drink. Patience, I realized, was what I lacked. I needed to be less concerned about moving on to the next task, and more interested in the moment-by-moment inhabitation of time and place. Indeed, it’s true that I had to learn to be patient as I learned patience: a meta-process that seemed to run alongside my observations of the young man, and my evolving response to the challenges he faces.

However, my new-found patience in the aforementioned circumstances has, lately, given way to a new sensitivity to patience as a “total” quality to be embraced. By this, I mean that patience is not simply a tool that I pull out of a box whenever I work with someone with a disability. Rather, it is an enveloping attribute – like faithfulness – to be applied to all dimensions of life. Working with this young man has taught me the value of patience during an activity, and to treat tasks as valuable in themselves. He is evidently untroubled by the length of time it takes him to complete something, and, from what I can discern, allows the activity at hand to envelop him in a way that, for some, might seem an alien exercise. At the same time, he confronts things with which he struggles, but by persisting in them, he has managed to learn the art of slowly, almost ploddingly, developing those skills which others (including me) do almost unconsciously. One’s character is tested in such times, and his is tested frequently. Happily, he invariably passes.

Finally, we come to humility, the last image. I think of another young man, who requires assistance for a number of daily tasks. This includes support in the bathroom. It’s certainly not glamorous work, but lately I have stopped thinking about my own role in this process, and have started to dwell on the evident humility this young man needs to demonstrate every time we work together. He places himself in my hands, so to speak, ceding a measure of control to another person for a period of time. He depends on me to be caring, compassionate, skilful and thorough. More to the point, he simply depends on me – on someone else to help in the completion of tasks that, again, may be performed with unconscious ease by others. Who, reading this, last reflected on the effort it requires to go to the bathroom (to borrow an American euphemism)? I haven’t for quite some time. But, each week, this young man places himself in a vulnerable position in order to complete something that requires him to summon whatever conscious effort he possesses. He does so as he is supported by me, and is forced – for want of a better term – to adopt a humble posture, acknowledging his own, demonstrable, need.

How all of this contrasts with life in the late, modern West. The values I have briefly mentioned are as rare in our world as they are profoundly displayed in the individuals I support. Our society, at least to my impressionistic observations, seems to be marked by a perpetual state of flux and fluidity. In contrast to the first man I described, many people seem to lack the stomach – much less the ability – for faithful commitment to something, whether a job, an organisation, or even another person. Transience seems more characteristic, and I’m not simply referring to our changing economic structure. Even commitment to a faith tradition may only last for as long as it’s easy or convenient.

Similarly, one must ask: where has the art of patience gone? Have we lost it? Are we so bent towards the next moment, or the rush to reach what can only be reached through method and assiduity, that we forget the joy of almost losing ourselves in the small (to say nothing of the large) joys of life? In both work and recreation, the second man I spoke of seems to have acquired this habit. By contrast, so many others have either lost it or never had it in the first place.

The same seems to be true of humility. We have been robbed of the knowledge of our own inter-dependence; the complex web of individuals, structures, institutions, skills, and resources on which we all rely. No man is an island, however much some of us may think otherwise. Although many are in thrall to a rugged individualism, the truth is that we all, like the third man I described, are limited and fragile. Like that young man, we depend on each other, for without the mutually uplifting presence of other people, life would be impossible.

I don’t want to suggest that people with disabilities are uniquely capable of possessing, and developing, the qualities I have tried to describe – as if everyone else was inherently deficient. Nor do I want to idealize the men with whom I work. Like others, they wrestle with unfulfilled desires. Like others, they become impatient. And, like others, they would rather eschew help in favour of (total) independence, even when it’s not possible. However, what I am saying is that what “society” might see as insufferable, pitiable or tragic might actually constitute a position of grace and strength. For my experiences have shown me that the individuals with whom I work are uniquely positioned to acquire and deepen noble habits that elude so many in a hectic, vain and superficial world.

Moreover, what we conventionally think of as “disability” is shaped, to a large extent, by our own social context. Due to the social and cultural structures we inhabit, we may only see difference or inferiority. Working closely with people in this situation, however, has taught me that difference and normalcy are not binary concepts. Indeed, the qualities I have described – and which are conspicuously lacking in so many sectors of contemporary society – are, I would suggest, dimensions of a “normal” life. Witnessing them embodied in people who are regularly seen as recipients of care (at best) has turned notions of normalcy, dependence and value on their heads. We do well to remember this, particularly those of us who, because of our Christian faith, subscribe to the truth that all people, without exception, bear God’s indelible image.

*Stay tuned for another essay, in which I shall explore the intersection between disability and theology. Hopefully, I can offer more than just a glimpse.