The humiliation of God is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when we think of Christmas. The mood of the season is festive and triumphant. The carols we sing speak of glory in the highest Heaven and of the king of Heaven come down to Earth to usher in his reign of peace and blessing. Even the scenes so commonly used to depict the nativity tend to be rather cosy and attractive – set in the kind of barn renovations that would fetch a tidy rent for a Christmas break in English Country Cottages. Humiliation is not even on the radar screen.
We go to the Bible (which is, after all, our primary source for discovering what really did happen that first Christmas) and we get a rather different picture. If we genuinely want to make sense of it all, then we need to think again.
A clue from way back when
The Bible starts dropping hints about what would happen long before the angel Gabriel ever appeared to Mary in Nazareth. Indeed, even before the prophets gave their now famous prophecies that anticipated the great event.
A thousand years before the Messiah King was born, another king of Israel sang about God and the salvation he would bring. In Psalm 18, David, the most famous of the Old Testament kings and author of many of the psalms in the Bible, rehearses the deliverances of the past and present that he and God’s people had experienced.
However, he does so not merely with an eye on the past, but also on the future. He knew that God’s ultimate deliverance – the great salvation promised from the earliest chapters in the Bible – was yet to come. He knew also that every ‘mini-deliverance’ that came provided important clues to what the true deliverance would be like. So as he reflects on what is known so far, he makes this extraordinary statement about God: ‘You stoop down to make me great!’ (Ps. 18:35).
That had been true in lots of ways for David himself as he came to play his part in the unfolding plan of deliverance that God was revealing to the world. When he was chosen as the saviour-king of Israel for the people of his day, he was quite literally the bottom of the pile among the potential candidates. Even Samuel the prophet and Jesse, David’s father, were somewhat dubious about the choice. Yet he was God’s man. God had indeed stooped low to exalt the shepherd boy to greatness.
The truth behind the glitzy images
There had been other similar clues dropped as the centuries rolled by and God’s message to the world was augmented by successive prophecies and revelations about the coming Christ. Isaiah spoke of a servant-king who would be anything but attractive in the eyes of men; but who was central to the saving purposes of God. He spoke of terrible and degrading things that would happen to him, but all of them necessary to God’s salvation being accomplished.
It’s only when we get to the great moment itself, though, that the truth finally comes to light. It’s at this point that we really do need to strip away the glitz on the images of Christmas to remind ourselves of the reality of what took place.
We can do that easily by reminding ourselves that the stable and the manger where the infant Jesus first sampled the air of planet earth were anything but nice. They were dirty, dank and unhygienic – no place for any self-respecting mother to have her child. We can bear in mind too that for Mary the virgin to be ‘with child’ was not something she would have wanted anyone to know about, let alone sing about. Her little boy was seen as having been conceived out of wedlock and there were names for children like that. Scrape away the glitter and the glory it proclaims and there is humiliation at every turn.
The greatest humiliation of the Son of God becoming man took place in the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb. The infinite and eternal Son of God steps into our humanity by becoming a zygote in a pregnant teenager. One of the great hymn-writers from the past captures it eloquently with the words: ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ He entered our world in a cloak of shame.
The worst was yet to come
One can well imagine the reaction of the angels in Heaven as they looked on at this incredible drama unfolding before their eyes as salvation history moved towards its climax. No-one in all the universe could conceive of God himself stooping to such depths in order to fulfil his plan of redemption for those who had rebelled against him. But worse was yet to come.
This same God who stepped down from the heights of Heaven to ‘the squalor of a borrowed stable’ was the same God-in-human-flesh who plumbed even greater and unimaginable depths. In the language of the apostle Paul: ‘He humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross.’
It wasn’t merely the scandal of crucifixion as a means of execution reserved for the lowest of the low, or even the manner of that form of death which literally stripped away every last shred of dignity and decency a human being might crave; it was the humiliation of being ‘made sin’ for the sake of his people. He, who was innocent and pure, voluntarily took upon himself the combined accumulation of guilt and impurity of all his people through all of history and in an eternity bound up in a moment of history bore the full force of what they deserve.
What on earth was going on in the mind of the God of all glory to subject his own most precious Son to such depths of shame and degradation? David put his finger on it when he said, ‘You stooped down to make me great!’
God’s desire from the outset in creation was for the human race to be the very essence of glory. Made as God’s image he wanted them to reflect on Earth the glory that was rightly his in Heaven. He wanted human beings to share his glory. But that could only happen when the humiliation our race brought upon itself was somehow dealt with.
The only one who was qualified and capable of doing just that was God’s own Son and it could only happen when he took our humiliation that we might share his glory!