The significance of the birth of Jesus logically rests upon Calvary. This is not just the logic of faith. It builds from the logic of human lived experience. Is it not in the face of death that we tend to contemplate the value of the life that was lived and thereby ascribe new meaning to the beginning? Death, especially a violent one, has the power to turn an otherwise ordinary life into a powerful symbol. The brutal murder of George Floyd and the ensuing global response are a recent case in point. Death, especially a violent death, can further become the fertile ground in which the seed of the mythical germinates and puts down its primary root. It can give birth to a new language, that of faith, and transform human beings into heroes and even gods. It can serve as the hermeneutical thrust that turns a wickedly brutal, albeit ordinary Roman form of execution, into the fulfilment of a long-awaited promise. Death is indeed the matrix in which a baby, who is in every way human and vulnerable, can become the very incarnation of the eternal God and the savior of the world.
As an instrument of death, then, the cross is understandably pivotal in giving shape to Christian faith and spirituality. Too often, however, the cross overshadows the birth event in significant ways, which creates unnecessary conflict between two distinct yet inseparable events. Nevertheless, a clash of the symbols is inevitable. The ensuing theological mayhem erodes meaning not only from the symbols themselves but also from life, the reality from which those very symbols draw their value and toward which they are oriented. Yet a further contradiction ensues: the overemphasis of Golgotha over against Bethlehem leads inevitably to all sorts of theological abstraction, which further diminishes the value of the crucial point at which the Christ event most concretely and most meaningfully touches with human life, what Merleau-Ponty calls “the lived body.” Most nefariously, the consequences of these contradictions are felt most concretely in the bodies of the oppressed who, marginalized from every other center of power, see in these events and symbols a real (redemptive) path out of their struggles.
This act of theological violence and self sabotage effectively renders moot the possibility that theology might have something to say about the conditions of oppressed bodies all over the world. Theology informs not only the words or choice of a song or prayer on Easter Sunday, but its ramifications extend to as significant a decision as whether to deploy violence against one’s oppressor or steal to secure a meal and to decisions as mundane as whether to wear pants or cut one’s hair. In other words, it matters what is taught about Jesus’ life and death because, rightly or not, it is a matter of life or death for so many. That an event and symbol as potentially transformative as the birth event might be the victim of theological neglect is all the more problematic.
A phenomenological approach to measuring the distance between Bethlehem and Golgotha, one that takes seriously the human aspects of the birth event, can help restore both the inherently generative nature of the relation between the two events and the potentially mutually beneficial relation between the symbols and everyday life. Setting aside, if for a moment, the doctrines whose shadows too hastily wrap the birth and development of the child in the borrowed robes of orthodoxy, then the close link between the child and all of humanity becomes more organic and real. The more organic and real the link, then the more potentially existentially significant the symbol, and the more potentially transformative will be the ensuing relation.
The doctrines that are built on the premise that both the birth and death of Jesus are foreshadowed not only in persons but especially in words of prophecy as spoken by various figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, take for granted the real developmental issues that surround a human life. Can Jesus be human if he did not grow or change and even change perspectives? How many times did his parents correct or punish him? What was it like for him to undergo puberty and sexual maturity? How did he resist taking different paths? Was he ever lonely or afraid or depressed or suicidal or racially bigoted? These questions are not intended to rehearse what has been done, for better or worse, by the movement to find the ‘historical Jesus.’ The goal here is rather to highlight the problem with rushing from birth to death or from humanity to divinity. If the birth of Jesus says anything about divinity, is it not in the absence thereof? How helpful to daily life are talks of a life lived without faults? By considering human lived experience as a valid framework from which to study the life of Jesus, a phenomenological approach to the birth of Jesus offers the opportunity to consider what it might have truly been like to be Jesus and, more importantly for both life and faith, what it might take to be truly like him.
Reconstructing the journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha begins with a fresh analysis of the birth event. Perhaps the way forward is different from the archaeological or the biblical or even the doctrinal. Rather, it is a question of the very human need to grow and make choices, even the choice to give oneself to die for a friend. It is a question of living with intentionality with a view to a singular purpose. It is also a question of the value of everybody, whatever its origin or pedigree. If in Jesus God becomes incarnate, then aught Christmas not represent the quintessential celebration of the body, and if the body, then human existence? The birth event would be the ultimate affirmation of the potentialities of human life and of hope’s continual entanglement with human lived experience, in spite of all else. The birth event also offers a sharp rebuke, if not warning, to anyone who would abuse that body, any body, for every body has the potential to become something more. The birth event shines a bright light on the need to cherish life from the beginning. It is the guiding star to a world in which justice prevails, an invitation to live in the shadow of the possible. Many thousands of babies are born every day around the world. Many more live in inhumane conditions. If it is truly possible that God might manifest Godself in the form of a baby from anywhere in the world, what might be the proper way to welcome God?
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