Jesus, Human on His Mother’s Side: the Incarnation

James Tissot's 'The Adoration of the Shepherds.' (ca. 1886-1894) European Art collection via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(From James Tissot; via European Art Collection, Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(“Adoration of the Shepherds,” James Tissot. (ca. 1890))

We’re celebrating the birth of Jesus this weekend.

Saturday night’s Gospel reading starts with “…a decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” About halfway along, we hear that Joseph finally found a place to stay in Bethlehem: but not exactly five-star accommodations.

When Jesus was born, Mary laid our Lord in a manger. Two millennia later, in my language, “manger” sounds a bit classy. But it’s a feeding trough.1

Carl Bloch's The Shepherds and the angel.' (1879) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Next we hear that shepherds got “…good news of great joy….”

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“‘Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'”
(Luke 2:1014)

Okay, so just who is this “Messiah and Lord,” and how does “an infant … lying in a manger” warrant an angelic introduction?

The answer’s fairly straightforward, but has been a hard sell from the get-go.

I’ll be talking about that. But first, backing up a bit —


…The Light Shines in the Darkness – – –

NASA's image of the day. (August 31, 2020) Sunrise over the Philippine Sea, northeast of Manila, seen from the ISS.

“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
“He was in the beginning with God.
“All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
“What came to be
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
“the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.”
(John 1:15)

Jesus: Born, Lived, Tortured, Killed

Ivan Kramskoi's 'Christ in the Wilderness.' (1872) Tretyakov Gallery, via Google Cultural Institute and Wikipedia, used w/o permission.That newborn, wrapped in swaddling clothes and put in a feeding trough, is — quite simply — God.

It’s that simple, and it’s been a hard sell for two millennia.

At first, the problem some folks had was thinking of Jesus as more than just someone who was either delusional or a fraud.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.’
So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.”
(John 8:5859)

Think about it. When Moses asked God for a name in that burning bush interview, God replied “I AM.” (Exodus 3:14)

Jesus said “before Abraham came to be, I AM.”

Jesus was saying “I am God.”

Folks have claimed divinity at least since Naram-Sin of Akkad called himself God of Akkad. The last I heard, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema belief was still extant,2 and I’m drifting off-topic.

At any rate, Jerusalem’s leaders decided they’d be better off with Jesus dead.

They arranged for the Roman governor to have Jesus tortured and executed. The disciple who had cooperated with them committed suicide.

And Then it Gets Interesting

James Tissot's 'Mary Magdalene Questions the Angels in the Tomb.' (ca.1886-1894)Then Jesus stopped being dead.

He convinced the surviving disciples that they weren’t seeing a ghost, gave them instructions we’re still following, and left.3

Following those instructions, they started sharing the best news humanity’s ever had “‘…in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’…”

Eventually their successors reached my ancestral homelands. We were pretty close to the ancient world’s “ends of the earth,” so that took time. And that’s another topic.

I follow Jesus because I think he is the Son of God, and that our Lord came to save us. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 456-478, 529, 1019)

Jesus of Nazareth was and is human: and Jesus is God. (Catechism, 422-679)

God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are also God. That’s not three gods, by the way. That’s one God, three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They’re consubstantial, which is a fancy word meaning ‘having the same substance.’ (Catechism, 238-260)

Living in Love, Harmony and Truth: Or Not

Third Defenestration of Prague, 1618, as imagined in 1662.Ideally, all the early Christians would have lived in love, joy, harmony and truth.

But we do not live in an ideal world.

Take Ananias and Sapphira, for example: savvy but shady folks who sold property, palmed part of the proceeds, and donated the remainder to the apostles.

So far, so good.

Presenting the remainder as the full amount, not so much.

Lying is a bad idea. Lying to God is a really bad idea, and in this case a lethal one. (Acts 5:110, see also * footnote; Catechism, 2464ff)

Deliberately replacing the knowledge and wisdom we’ve been passing along with nifty new — or old — notions; is an even worse idea. (Catechism, 74-95, 101-133, 817-819)

Being Human

'Crucifixion,' detail, Jacopo Tintoretto. (1565)Early on, most folks didn’t have trouble with seeing Jesus as divine.

What some balked at was believing that Jesus could be both God and human.

Some still have trouble with that idea.

But what can I say? That’s the way it is, and we can’t change what we’ve been passing along to make truth more in tune with whatever’s trendy at the moment.

I’ll admit to a bias.

I’m human: a creature with a physical body, made in the image of God with a soul and free will, a rational being. (Catechism, 355-373, 1730-1742, 2702)

Mind you, being a rational being doesn’t mean I always think straight. Or even think, period. I have free will, so using my brain is an option, not an obligation, and that’s yet another topic.

The point is that I like being human. I enjoy breathing, eating, perceiving this wonder-filled world with my senses. I do not yearn to be a disembodied spirit.

Let’s see, where was I? God. Jesus. Being human. Making sense: or not.

I’ve seen an early bad idea called Gnostic Docetism and just plain Docetism. Basically, the idea was that Jesus was God. But Jesus only seemed to be human. That our Lord’s physical appearance was an illusion.4

I can see the appeal, at least for folks who feel that spirit is good and physical stuff is icky.


Gnosticism

Jacques Matter's Pleroma of Valentinus, (1829) from Histoire critique du Gnosticisme, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.I’m guessing that if you’ve heard about Gnosticism in class, you were told that it’s a Christian thing.

If so, the professor wasn’t wrong.

Western culture’s version of Gnosticism has roots in late 1st century Christian circles. These folks felt that physical reality was flawed at best, or downright evil.

I don’t think that makes sense, since I think God creates everything: including the world we live in.

And I don’t think God makes junk. Besides, there’s this bit from Genesis:

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed—the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:31)

At any rate, Simon Magus founded Gnosticism. Or he didn’t. What’s more certain is that he was accused of Gnosticism by 1st century Christian authorities. He’s also the chap who thought trying to by the Holy Spirit’s was a good idea.

Whoever launched what we call Gnosticism, Simonians were Gnostics who said they followed the teachings of Simon Magus. They were active from the 2nd to the 4th centuries.5

Gnew Harmony: Gnot Gnostic

F. Bate's illustration of Robert Owen's proposed 'New Harmony' (1838)Not all folks who seem uncomfortable with physical reality are Gnostics.

Take the 19th century’s New Harmony community, for example. They allowed marriage, but apparently discouraged folks from having kids.

From their viewpoint it made sense, maybe, since they also believed that Jesus was coming back during their lifetimes.

But never mind them. I was talking about Gnosticism as a ‘Christianity my way’ thing, starting with Simon Magus and the Simonians.

Next up is Cerdo, whose 15 minutes of fame was in the 130s.

Good God, Bad God and Other Bad Ideas

John Martin's 'Pandemonium.' (1841) via WikiMedia Commons, used w/o permission.Cerdo started as a Simonian, then set up shop on his own.

He said there were two gods: one demanding obedience, the other good and merciful.

Cerdo’s obedience god was the Old Testament deity, the good and merciful one was superior and known only through Jesus.

And that Jesus was the son of the good deity: sent into the world to oppose evil.

But, Cerdo said, Jesus only looked human. Since the body — all bodies — was the evil deity’s work, again according to Cerdo, looking human was an illusion, and so were our Lord’s apparent sufferings and death.

I’ll give Cerdo credit for consistency. His moral system prohibited drinking wine, eating meat and getting married. Where he thought little Cerdonians would come from, that I don’t know.

Then there was Bardaisan: scholar, astrologer, philosopher, hymnographer and poet. He apparently believed that an all-powerful God existed and that we have free will. He also knew about Babylonian astrology.

How many Bardaisanite beliefs are from Bardaisan and how many were added after his death is anyone’s guess. The Bardaisanite school’s beliefs arguably influenced Valentinianism and Manichaeism.

Valens — not the Roman emperor, this is the Valens from Bacetha Metrocomia — took the ‘physical stuff is bad’ idea to a new level.

He earned a reputation for castrating travelers he met. Valesians, his followers, may have been more restrained. They seem to have encouraged self-castration.

Other Gnostic beliefs were more mainstream, like Manichaeism, Mandaeism, Sethianism and Valentinianism.6

Anaxagoras and the Cosmic Mind – or – Arianism isn’t Aryanism

Dustin Dewynne's dualism/monism comparison. (2012) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.A quick recap.

Gnosticism is dualistic, dividing reality into physical and spiritual. So far, so good.

But Gnostic beliefs say that physical is bad.

As I said before, I don’t buy that because I think God makes everything and that God doesn’t make junk.

I also think Gnosticism didn’t start with Christianity. Not the basic ideas.

Anaxagoras, a fifth century BC philosopher, said that Nous — a sort of cosmic mind — an originally homogeneous universe. He’s not as famous these days as Aristotle and Plato, and I’ve talked about that before.

The point is that Gnostic ideas predate Christian-flavored Gnosticism. And may predate Jaspers’ Axial Age, although I’ll grant that many of our current philosophical ideas got traction then.

(Almost) finally, there’s Arianism: a nifty idea promoted by Arius, who lived in the third and fourth centuries.

Scholars reconstructing that belief say that Arius saw Jesus as the Son of God: but in the sense of being created by God, a perfect but subordinate creature. And as such, not a person in the Trinity.

Arianism, by the way, isn’t Aryanism. Aryanism is a bad idea that took form in the late 19th century, boiled over in the 20th, and is still getting flushed out of my native culture.7


– – – And the Darkness Has Not Overcome It….

Matthias Grünewald's 'Isenheim Altarpiece,' detail (1512-1516) via Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Getting back to that night in Bethlehem, when Mary gave birth to Jesus: and repurposed a feeding trough as a crib.

That baby really was a baby, a young human: not something incorporeal, disguised as one of us.

That baby really was and is God: the Almighty, creator of everything, merciful, knowable and unknowable. (Catechism, 31-43, 156-159 202, 268-324)

Two millennia back, some folks balked at thinking that someone could be both God and human. Some still do.

These days, I hear more about folks having trouble believing that Jesus could have been anything but a man. Or that there’s anything besides the material world.

I’m a Catholic, so I think that Jesus of Nazareth is the Second Person of the Trinity: really human and really divine.

I don’t understand how that works. Not on an operational nuts-and-bolts level. But I don’t need God-level knowledge to accept that Jesus was and is who he said he is.

Besides, one way can I think about our Lord’s unique ancestry is using myself as an example. Not that I’m claiming divinity. Trouble like that I don’t need.

My mother’s Norwegian, a short black-haired kind. My father’s Irish and Scots.

That doesn’t mean that I’m Norwegian, but only seem to be Gaelic or Celtic or whatever. I’m Norwegian on my mother’s side, more-or-less Gaelic-Celtic on my father’s.

I could try believing that I’m exclusively Scandinavian or Gaelic or Celtic or whatever. That seems silly at best.

I’m not Norwegian or Irish or Scots. I’m all of them.

Making Sense

'The Resurrection of Jesus Christ,' Piero della Francesca. (1463)As I see it — and I won’t insist that it’s a theologically bulletproof way of expressing the idea — our Lord’s mother is Mary and his father is God.

So Jesus is human on his mother’s side.

His life, death and resurrection wouldn’t make sense if he wasn’t.

And that’s yet again another topic:


1 A manger and meaning:

2 Claims, old and new:

3 Jesus lives, really:

4 A durable idea:

5 A sad legacy:

6 Assorted Gnostics and Gnostic ideas:

7 A little history, a little philosophy, and a really bad idea:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Jesus, Human on His Mother’s Side: the Incarnation

  1. I feel like I’ve talked about this here before, but anyway, I’ve been noticing Gnosticism trending in today’s East Asian pop culture. I could say I’m not really taking it seriously, but the truth is that I crazily relate to that disorderly disgust over physical reality and obsession over spiritual reality. And I think I’m still slowly coming to terms with how the Catholic faith is distinguished by how it cherishes physical reality as well. Like, how could He bother to work through these things that are beneath Him, right? But thinking about it some more, if He were to work on them and make them better, then working through them as well would be a more sensible development to Him, right? In the end, I guess our trouble with believing that stems from pride, the opposite of love, that sin which we mix up with that virtue. Love certainly discourages pride, but it also encourages more love, which challenges and guides us at the same time. What a wonderful God we have, then, no? So yeah, Merry Christmas, Mr. Gill! 😀

Thanks for taking time to comment!