HED:The hopes and fears of all the years
By John Armistead
Like many others, Shelly Joiner draws strength and comfort from the assurance that Christ, having suffered himself, understands completely what she is going through and is able to help her in and through her hurting.
“I know when I’m in physical pain, he knows what I feel like,” said Joiner, a member of Tupelo’s Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. “And in my anxiety, when I don’t know what to pray for, I know he as the Holy Spirit is praying for me.”
For Christians, the celebration of Christmas is rooted in the belief that in Christ the transcendent God not only became a human being, but, as a human, experienced all the emotional highs and lows that humans experience. According to the Prologue of the Gospel of John, the divine logos, by whom the universe was created and who was none less than God himself, became a human being called Jesus. This divine act is called the “incarnation,” a word derived from the Latin incarnatus, “to become flesh.”
According to the Gospels, Jesus was physically a man (becoming on occasions tired, hungry, and thirsty), emotionally a man (becoming angry, sad, anxious, and frustrated), and even mentally a man, having taken upon himself the limitations of a finite mind.
The human experience
According to the Rev. Fisher Humphreys, a Southern Baptist and professor of divinity at Samford University, Christ was exempt from no human emotion.
“Some psychologists and therapists talk now about children experiencing all major human emotions – fear, shame, jealousy, and so on – by the time they are six months old,” he said. “Christ certainly shared in all of that. Human emotions are all going on long before any of us are responsible for anything.”
Humphreys points out that the writer of Hebrews emphasizes Christ’s empathy with believers in their trials because he himself has already been through the same kinds of experiences. “The theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus to everything that went before,” said Humphreys, “yet it is the humanity that speaks so deeply to us.”
A sense of his presence
“The older I get, the more I think about it (the incarnation) and it’s comforting to me to think that whatever I go through, he’s already been through it,” said Fredda Robinson, a member of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
For Robinson, this has been a growing perception. “I didn’t always think like this,” she said. “I used to have him up there beyond such feelings. Now I know he is in all our joys and pains. In great hurts – like when a child is taken from us – and I’m crying, I see him crying too.”
This growing awareness has brought her a definite sense of the presence of Christ. “I see him most clearly when I’m teaching kindergarten and remember him on the mountainside and the disciples trying to chase the children away,” she said. “I see myself as one of the children, and I want to run jump in his lap and be comforted.”
Joiner also finds that belief in the emotional and physical incarnation of Christ makes his presence real. “When I think about God becoming a man, it personalizes Jesus,” she said. “That’s one of the most important things for a Christian – to know he’s always present, unseen but present, that quiet whisper on the wind, that ever-present knowledge that I’m not alone.”
Sometimes it takes her a while to work through anxiety and depression, but she maintains her confidence in that presence. “And,” she adds, “in spite of an occasional wavering of faith, he abides with me.”
A personal God
“In terms of human experience,” said Paul Mize Jr., a member of Tupelo’s First United Methodist Church, “it (the incarnation) means that the God we seek has been in the same place that we have. It gives you a feeling that it’s not a God that is just over us and above us, but one who is among us.”
Mize points to the Scriptural account of Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. “That not only shows us God cares about us, but shows us the nature of God. And, that’s love. So, when we hurt, God hurts.”
Christ, Mize feels, focused the picture of what God is like for us. “God is personal,” he said. “That God takes on our emotions is important. I don’t think you could hope for any more than for God who knows what we’re going through. I go back and forth on (the book of) Job. The core meaning of Job is that God is going to be there for us.”
The love of God toward us expressed in the embodiment of God in Christ should shape the way we relate to others, Mize said. “We are to try to feel what others feel. We are supposed to be the body of Christ for others, to experience the pain of others, to know what they’re going through.”
Reflecting on the suffering of Christ helps Christians handle their own suffering, according to Annie Richardson, a member of Lane Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church of Tupelo. “When I’m in pain, I think about that he has suffered much and suffered for us,” she said. “And, I don’t feel like I should be hollering and screaming and carrying on. He suffered much for me, and I should bear it.”
Pain is also a teacher. “Our suffering makes us much stronger and we learn more and get the full meaning out of what it’s all about,” she said.
As the remembrance of Christ’s sufferings inspires her to bear her own, Richardson is then able to focus on God’s blessings.
“Even though I don’t have some of the things some people do,” she said, “I have life and joy and my friends and family and church. I have much more than other people who might have millions.”
The hopes and fears
Professor Humphreys emphasizes that today the church at large is divided between two opinions regarding the incarnation. “There are people for whom it is sufficient that Jesus shared all our condition and nothing more is needed,” he said. “They feel loved.”
A more traditional view, according to Humphreys, is that in addition to sharing the condition of our weaknesses and our pain, he also conquers that condition.
“I’m a traditionalist on this,” he said. “I think he shall one day overcome all the downside of our lives, the pain, fears and shame. It’s like that line in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’”
Believers bring their greatest hopes into the Christmas story. “And my favorite part of the story,” the professor said, “is when old Simeon in the temple took the baby Jesus in his arms and said, ‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation.’”