Immanuel – But How and What Does It All Mean?
At Christmas in a special way, Christians accept and celebrate the coming of Christ as the appearance of God in human form. He is Immanuel – “God with us.” Both Muslims and Jews – our partners in the Abrahamic Faith – reject this possibility, although deep dialogue among the three faiths can enable all participants to understand what “acceptance” and “rejection” mean. We can come to an agreement on, if not acceptance of, the belief and its meaning. To show this is beyond the scope of a brief article. Here we can only explore what the belief means for Christians.
Whatever else God may be, God is beyond all our names and concepts and images; God is Holy. The word “holy” means God is separated, wholly other, and totally different from humanity and the rest of creation. God is not conceivable in human terms, even though we are limited to human terms to describe God. As Meister Eckhart said, “Any God you can grasp is not God.” This truth leads both to frustration on our part and also to disagreement about concepts of God.
We read in the Epistle to the Colossians that Christ “is the very image of the invisible God.” This is the Christian claim and belief at Christmas, beyond the claptrap that has virtually overpowered and subverted the season. This tiny child born in a cave in a manger is the presence of the All-Holy God among humans. This is the great truth we celebrate.
I bought Deepak Chopra’s book JESUS in Newark Airport and read it on my way home last week. The book is a fictional account of Jesus’ “lost years,” which allows room for gobs of unsubstantiated imaginings. Chopra writes, ”Millions of people have worshipped Christ without being transformed.” He believes that the church has removed Jesus from ordinary people and thus made him distant. He may be right. We can see Jesus as separated from us totally in his divinity, “leaving the rest of humanity stranded,” in Chopra’s words.
His approach stresses Jesus’ search for personal fulfillment. For Chopra, this is what it means to call him “God with us.” Jesus more or less invents his divinity as he matures. However, Chopra’s view of Jesus means that anyone who cannot achieve fulfillment is also stranded, too. There must be a path between the extremes of either Christ’s humanity or his nature as Immanuel.
The Christian community has always been wary of stories about Jesus that seem to show him arbitrarily throwing his divine weight around. He was always Immanuel, yet he too had to struggle to understand his calling, his role, and his mission in life. This self-understanding was not there from birth; like us, he grew and changed and matured. We say that he did this “without sin,” however, which is Christian shorthand for saying that he never lost his relationship with God. Immanuel remains a mystery incapable of full expression.
The best we can utter is “true God and true man.” But at least we try to hold the two poles together.
At least some streams of Christianity embrace spiritual growth. We follow the path Jesus took to intimate communion with God. If Christ did not follow this path he is really less than fully human. However, what he is by nature we become by grace, as Augustine said. The spiritual guides of our tradition teach personal transformation with Christ as our master. At Christmas, we celebrate Immanuel as God with us, partly as a sign that we grow to be “with God.” We worship the child Immanuel in the manger, but we mature with the rabbi of Galilee.
published 18 December 2009