We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Throughout scripture, every time someone encounters God, the instant reaction is to wither in fear. It is Adam hiding in the garden, Isaiah’s chagrin in seeing God enthroned, and Peter’s utter devastation upon realizing that Jesus had just ordered countless fish into his nets. The life we previously considered a garment of rich tapestry is shown to be filthy rags when exposed to God’s holiness.
This is the beauty of Christmas.
We, who live in darkness, could never find our way to God. With unspeakable love, He came to us humbly, as an infant, born in poverty and vulnerability. His life was of one of single purpose; to seek and to save that which was lost. The message today is the same as the angels proclaimed at His birth.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!
“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.”
Dig Deeper – Mosaic depicting the Deesis Christ, South Gallery, Byzantine, 14th century (mosaics), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Here is someone claiming the prerogatives of God—such as the right to forgive sin—who is so totally obedient to God that it is inconceivable that he is trying to usurp God. Here is someone who is clearly human—who gets tired, thirsty, and so on—but who says and does things that put him way beyond humanity, on any understanding of an index of its capacities. It’s not a ‘simple’ picture, and cannot lead to a ‘simple’ answer. In this case, ‘simple’ just means simplistic—failing to attend to the complexity of the issues.
So did the Christian desire to make Christ into the real governor of the universe really lead to him being represented as a glorified emperor? We can explore this question by looking at one of the most famous Byzantine images of Christ—a mural in the great church of Hagia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) in what is now the Turkish city of Istanbul, but was formerly the great Christian city of Constantinople. It is a beautiful image, typical of the golden age of Byzantine religious imagery. There is no commentary, other than the abbreviation for the Greek words for ‘Jesus Christ’ on either side of the image.
Now even the most cursory examination of this famous image shows that the ‘Jesus as glorified Roman emperor’ argument has some serious problems. For a start, Jesus is generally pictured—as here—with long hair and a beard, something quite alien to traditional ways of picturing Roman emperors. He is clearly represented as someone who is outside the establishment, not part of it. Furthermore, Jesus is not depicted as wearing imperial clothes. He is dressed as a wandering teacher, wearing an ordinary tunic and shawl. Traditional secular images of Roman emperors from this period often represent them as wearing military dress. Yet Christ is dressed as a commoner, not a noble; and as a teacher, not as a warrior. He holds a book, not a sword, nor any symbol of power or authority.
The real point being made by these Byzantine images of Christ is that a wandering Galilean peasant teacher has to be recognized as enthroned on high as ‘ruler over all (pantokrator)’. The splendid image from Hagia Sophia makes the point that someone whom the world regarded as lowly and insignificant has now been raised to glory.
~Alister McGrath, from Incarnation