When God rejects the dazzle: Third Week of Advent (2021)

“L’Annonciation d’Oustioug” Icon, c. 1120–1130.

“I consider, often, the difference between showing off and showing out. How showing off is something you do for the world at large and showing out is something you do strictly for your people. The people who might not need to be reminded how good you are but will take the reminder when they can.”

-Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing…”

-John Francis Wade, “O Come All Ye Faithful”

common question among my more skeptical friends is simple: if God is real, how come he doesn’t just show up and tell us? My answer is always the same: he has. Advent is all about the grand revelation of God in Christ, of the Creator becoming in the likeness of creation, literally showing up on earth and saying: “I am” (John 8:58). The narrative of Jesus’ birth is all about the profound reality that God has come to us and revealed his glory with clarity and power.

And yet, the Christmas story raises this same question in a new way. Whether we stress about the historicity of the claims, or the theological implications therein, or the scientific strangeness regarding stars, a mute priest, and a virgin birth, we tend to approach the story from a cautious distance, even hoping it might be a myth. Beyond the question, “why doesn’t God show up?” might be this one: why did God choose to show up in this particular way? Why did he become a human? Why would he not pull back the curtain of the heavens and display a glorious light, announcing, “I’m real, you guys!” Why doesn’t he do that every year or something? Could he not make it plain through a spectacular show?

Like nearly every question I encounter as a Christian, this one — why did God reveal himself in this way? — has been handled by the church nearly since its inception. This is nothing new.

The Scripture passage upon which this year’s Advent reflections are based shows the level of care early followers of Jesus handled his humanity. Jesus was a real person. God became human.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…”

-1 John 1:1

The disciples of Jesus experienced him as the fully divine human, the God-man who was more than a prophet, teacher, or healer. He was Yahweh. They met him. They ate with him. They watched him weep. And, ultimately, they saw his skin tear as he hung bleeding from a cross. This is to say they watched God live and die.

The humanity and divinity of Jesus became important and contested grounds after the resurrection. The Patristics (the early church fathers) obsessed over protecting this doctrine in order to war against heresies saying Jesus either was just God and not human, or just a human and not God. The truth they protected — that God became a human to reveal himself and save us — has become a central doctrine of Christianity celebrated during Advent.

Athanasius was on of these protectors of the doctrine. A fourth century Coptic priest from Egypt, he wrote one of the most famous Christological studies around the year 335–40 A.D. titled, On the Incarnation. It’s a masterpiece. C.S. Lewis, perhaps one of the most well-read intellectuals of the middle twentieth century, said of the book that “only a master mind could have written so deeply on a subject with such classical simplicity.”

Athanasius confronts the question that began this reflection: why would God choose to be a human to reveal himself? Why not do something grander, more…god-like? Athanasius asks why God would not come in the more “noble parts of creation” like a star or the sun or in a huge fire and flash of light? His response is staggeringly helpful:

“[T]he Lord came not to be put on display but to heal and to teach those who were suffering. One being put on display only needs to appear and dazzle the beholders; but one who heals and teaches does not simply sojourn, but is of service to those in need and appears as those who need him can bear, lest by exceeding the need of those who suffer he trouble the very ones in need and the manifestation of the divine be of no benefit to them.”

-On the Incarnation, ch. 43

The primary reason, according to Athanasius, that God came as a human and not a star was in order to heal those who suffer, to join them in the suffering. No one in pain needs a magic show. The one who suffers does not need to be dazzled — they need true presence and empathy.

Here, Athanasius draws heavily from the book of Hebrews, particularly Hebrews chapters 2–5, where the writer speaks of this same profound truth: Christ became human so as to heal through co-suffering. Look and reflect upon this beautiful passages:

“For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

— Hebrews 2:18

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

— Hebrews 4:15

“He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is best with weakness.”

— Hebrews 5:2

“Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”

— Hebrews 5:8

Each of these verses could be entire sermons, books even. The richness of Hebrews is unpacked in Athanasius’ claim: God became human in order to fulfill the intricate nature of his salvation effort. To save a human, you must become one.

God revealed himself as human and suffered because we could never know him unless he did so. We might think we would respond to magic or a star or some flash of light and a voice from heaven. But Athanasius and Hebrews would say “no.” God rejected a flashy appearance “lest by exceeding the need of those who suffer he trouble the very ones in need.” If he became a star, Athanasius argues, then “the manifestation of the divine be of no benefit” to the humans who experience pain. They would have missed him entirely.

Instead, the sufferers now know God with great clarity — this was true in Jesus’ own earthly ministry. The poor, outcast, lame, sinners, all gravitated towards him as the religious leaders plotted his murder. People in pain are not suspicious of empathy, they gravitate towards it. But religious people are always suspicious of grace. The ones for whom God came for have come to know God precisely because he chose to become human. Athanasius again: “Being human, they will be able to know the Father more speedily and directly by a body corresponding [to theirs] and the divine works effected through it” (On the Incarnation, ch 43).

The final reason God became human was that “human beings alone…rejected the good.” God had to become like those who rebelled against him in order to save them. Athanasius argues that stars, moons, and suns are all doing their job glorifying God — why would God become like the obedient aspects of creation? He took on the part of creation rebelling against him. God adorned himself with our own rebellion to save us. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), but do human beings? Not so much. By becoming a human, now finally, the last aspect of creation can join in bringing glory to God the Father. The picture is complete.

The whole earth is now “filled with his glory” (Isaiah 11:9) as the rebellious creature — the human being — is being made new by the life of Christ inside our bodies. It is now possible for Christ to shine his light not only in creation, but in the very creatures who rebelled against him. Having taken on a body, God shows us that there is no aspect of creation untouched by his redemptive hand. If he can become human and defeat the very death we brought upon ourselves, there is nothing he cannot take on. The incarnation (God becoming human) gloriously reveals God to be who he has always said he would be: mighty to save (Isaiah 63:1). Now that, friends, is a grand revelation.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books