Christmas, Quakers, and Incarnation
Helen Gould, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Early Friends did not believe in times and seasons, because every time was sacred. However, they were passionate about Incarnation – the divine spirit becoming human, in us: “the body is the temple”. “The incarnation” is the phrase mainstream Christians use for God becoming human in Jesus, at his birth.
For Quakers our beliefs arise from experience: specifically, the Pentecostal experience of the incarnation of the divine in one-self. We may particularly experience this – which Early Friends called the “power of the Lord” – during worship, and when we are following divine guidance despite inner or outer opposition. At a trial of early Friends a judge called them “Quakers” because they visibly shook, and the name stuck. The “power” can be felt as an energy moving within us, or as “the light that enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). We all have a “measure” of the light, and as we live up to the light that we have, that measure grows. Jesus grew into the fullness of his measure, and that possibility is also open to us.
The Buddhists and the Yogis teach students how to meditate so as to experience that divine energy. We can learn how to centre down, down from the busy mind into the breath in the belly, and we can learn how to pay attention there, so that we may experience “the power” or “the light” or “the anointing” which teaches us (1 John 2:27). This experience is, of course, not of our own doing: it is a divine gift, a grace; and it is different for each person because our “conditions” vary. Hence George Fox challenged his hearers, saying “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
To Jesus’ followers he was the Messiah or Christ, both of which mean someone anointed by God for a special purpose. Unlike the many other Messiahs around his time, he rejected the view that the Jews would be freed from Roman domination through violence. Jesus was the son of God – and so were Adam (in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus) and the Davidic kings (Psalm 2), and those who, like God, do good to people regardless of whether they do wrong or not (Matthew 5:43ff). The Lord’s prayer begins “Our Father”.
The Christmas stories were not part of the earliest Christianity. They post-date the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. The stories arose in specific communities where very few people could read, let alone write. They are like parables. The stories survived because they were full of meaning for their communities, and memorable. Matthew and Luke’s birth stories are quite different and occasionally incompatible. I focus on Matthew here. The gist of his birth story is that Jesus is the Messiah in David’s line (so Matthew’s hearers would expect Jesus to be born in Bethlehem and so he is, in a house where his parents are living). Jesus is also the new and greater Moses. So just as Moses “wrote” 5 books, the Torah, there are 5 dreams, 5 prophecies, and the first of Jesus’ 5 great discourses takes place “on the Mount”. Like the old Pharaoh, the new Pharaoh, Herod, orders the slaughter of babies in his attempt to destroy the holy child. This is parable, not history, and no less meaningful for that.
Does the meaning for their then, also hold meaning for our now? Yes. The core message of the gospels of Matthew and Luke is: don’t put your trust (faith) in the kings and kingdoms of “this world”, put your trust in the Kingdom of God, the Way which Jesus taught. The governments of this world practice peace-making through violence – the Roman armies “make a desert and they call it peace”, whereas the rule of God is about making peace through doing justice and loving-kindness.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, the centre of Christianity gradually moved from Jerusalem to Rome, from Jewish Christians to Gentile Christians. With this shift, Greco-Roman ideas about “sons of God” replaced the Jewish ones, and when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in 313, the hitherto acceptable diversity of belief in Christian communities was crushed.
And Christianity survives. As Eckhart said 600 years ago, ‘What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?’
Postscript: Many of us also recognize that the divine incarnates in living beings apart from just humans! In all of Life, in fact – and from an Indigenous perspective, the land, the rivers, all of what-is, is alive.
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