I very much appreciate the columns by Anastasia Bartlett in the Townsman. Many of us don’t know enough about Eastern Orthodox traditions, and her writing about those ancient traditions is a very welcome thing. I am grateful for her insights and deep spirituality.
However, I must disagree with a comment in a recent column. She was writing about the incarnation, which comes from two Latin words meaning “in the flesh”. It is the theological word for our Christmas celebrations when we celebrate God enfleshed in Jesus. In that column, she wrote, “Jesus was born to die.”
I’ve seen and heard that kind of thinking many times. Last week, I saw a church sign online which read, “Christmas is the story of a baby born to die.” On another website, I saw an animated Christmas display which showed — yes, get this — Jesus carrying his cross and being flogged, presumably by a Roman soldier. And Merry Christmas to you too! What a macabre thing to do!
I disagree. Jesus was not born to die. Jesus was born to live.
Like any other baby, like any other human being, like any other of God’s creatures, Jesus was born to live.
There are too many Christians who look at Jesus and see only the cross. As if the cross was the only thing of value about Jesus. As if God’s only purpose for Jesus was for him to die. As if the whole of Jesus’ work and ministry in the world counts for nothing. As if none of his teachings really mattered because the only thing that really matters is that “Jesus died for my sins.”
None of that is true, of course. Like any of us, Jesus’ life counts. How he lived, what he taught, how he showed compassion and grace in the world — all of these are equally important as his death. Jesus was born to live.
The gospels testify to this over and over again. “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1: 38). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). In response to Pilate’s question about whether Jesus was a king, Jesus responds, “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18: 37).
His whole life long, Jesus showed us how people can experience God’s love in this world. Jesus’ life was dedicated to embracing, healing, loving people and treating all of God’s people with grace and compassion.
It makes me sad to think that anyone can look at the infant Jesus and see only his death.
It makes me sad that anyone can read the radical story of a baby in a manger and think only of a cross.
It makes me sad to imagine that for so many people, Christian faith is only about Jesus dying so that we can go to heaven.
It makes me sad that anyone can reduce the mystery of incarnation to the tragedy of crucifixion.
So let me repeat what I’ve said so often in these columns. It wasn’t Jesus’ death and crucifixion that set things right in the world. Rather, it was Jesus’ whole life that shows what a world set right might look like.
And Jesus showed us that abundant life looks like the kingdom of God: the hungry are fed; the wealthy and the powerful who are doing violence for their own sake are toppled with nonviolence and solidarity; the oppressed are raised up; outsiders, including refugees, are welcomed with open arms and open hearts; broken people are being made whole; lonely people are being welcomed into community; all people are learning to live together in peace for the welfare of all.
Abundant life looks like what we have seen in people like Jean Vanier, who gave up the perks and privileges of his life to live with developmentally handicapped men in community. Like Mahatma Gandhi, who led his people in nonviolent protest against the British Empire. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the fight for civil rights for all people in the US, regardless of colour or status. Like Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid, was imprisoned for it, and upon his release refused to give in to violence against his former oppressors.
And Jesus proclaims that this eternal, abundant life begins now, not when we die. Jesus shows us that heaven is found on earth, if only we have eyes to see it and the courage to live it.
The point of Jesus’ life is not the crucifixion. It is the incarnation. Jesus wasn’t born to die. Jesus was born to live—abundantly.
Death is inevitable, but the hope of incarnation is that life happens, that eternal life happens, and that it happens right now.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook