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Time Lord of Gallifrey, Now in Flesh Appearing … (a Christmas post)

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If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, this blog post may seem a little obscure, but stay with me, because there’s a serious point in here somewhere about the Incarnation.

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Every Christmas along with wrapping gifts, I try to wrap my mind around the mystery of the Incarnation — this thing we Christians are actually celebrating at this season.  The idea of Jesus coming to earth and becoming a human being, expressing God’s love for us by being one of us. And sometimes I think when I watch Doctor Who, I get sort of close.

If you’re not familiar with this BBC sci-fi series that’s been running off and on for over 50 years, The Doctor is a time-travelling alien from a planet called Gallifrey. He looks exactly like a human being (since he has to be played by a human actor) and he spends a lot of time among humans — in fact, he seems to have a special fondness for human beings and their planet, often choosing close human friends and companions and intervening to save Earth from destruction, often at great risk to himself.

He looks human, but he isn’t exactly one of us. He has powers that the average human doesn’t have. He’s lived so long he might as well be immortal. He can die, but he can also regenerate into a new body (a clever trick the BBC came up with to allow the  series to run for decades with a series of different actors playing the Doctor, but also, of course, a kind of resurrection). 

Sometimes it seems to me that a character like the Doctor (or any one of many apparently human superheroes, like Superman) is the closest we can come to understanding the Incarnation of the second Person of the Godhead in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He looked like us, He lived among us, to all appearances He was one of us — but He wasn’t really one of us. He had powers we don’t have access to — healing the sick, calming the storm, walking on water. And he didn’t share our ultimate human vulnerability — He defeated death. He loved us and cared about us, but He wasn’t really one of us.

As a child I used to sit in church and hear an older man in the congregation whose showcase piece to sing for special music was “Ten Thousand Angels.”

Heeeeee could have caaallllled
Ten thousand aaaaaaangels
To destroy the world
And set Him freeeeee …
Heeeeee could have caaallllled
Ten thousand aaaaaaangels

But He died aloooooone
For you and meeeeee!!!

That was the Jesus I grew up learning about — a Jesus very much like the Doctor, a Jesus who looked and acted human but wasn’t really, who had ten thousand angels at His control but refrained from calling on them so as not to blow his human cover.

But that’s not a real incarnation, is it? That’s a god trying on human form, like the pagan gods sometimes did — not actually becoming human.  

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have the many people — some agnostics, some atheists, some followers of non-Christian religions and even some very liberal Christians — who admire Jesus, but only as a great man. People I personally respect who are diverse as Gandhi (“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians”) and Hank Green (“I don’t believe in god, but I have a huge man-crush on Jesus”) admire the human Jesus, the teacher who taught and exemplified unconditional love even to the least, the lowest, the outcasts. People like Jesus if they can lay aside the baggage of divinity and accept Him as a great, admirable human being.

We humans, we can accept the idea of someone who is like us, only better. And we can accept — in mythology, at least, and in comic books and sci-fi — the idea of someone who isn’t like us, who is just playing the role but is really far more powerful.

But the early Christians, in formulating their doctrines about Jesus, didn’t offer us either of those options (actually, some early Christians did go for one of those options, but they were considered heretics, out of line with mainstream thought). The orthodox word on Jesus was that He was fully God and fully man, and nobody can explain that. Nobody can draw us a picture of what that might look like — it’s a statement of faith, a doctrine, but it’s hard to fit into a story, because it’s a paradox.

How do we understand a paradox? How do we love, worship, relate to a paradox?

I think we do the best we can with the pictures we have. We admire the human Jesus, just like so many non-Christians do — but we confess that He was more than that, though we don’t understand how.

On the other side of the coin, we admire superhuman characters like the Doctor, and recognize that Jesus was sort of like that, but not really. He wasn’t playacting. He wasn’t pretending. He truly shared our weaknesses and limitations; He didn’t just pretend to. And when we bump up against a picture of Jesus that sounds a little too much like a superhero and not like a real human being — as at Christmas when we sing “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” as though He wasn’t an actual human baby who screamed when He was hungry and dirtied His diaper and sucked hungrily at His mother’s breast — then we stop and say, No, that’s not right. Maybe the Doctor is only pretending to be human; maybe Superman is just trying to fit in as Clark Kent. But Jesus wasn’t like that. Jesus actually was human; Jesus was one of us.

That’s inexplicable. But inexplicable doesn’t (for me, at least) mean untrue. It’s inexplicable, but it’s Incarnation.

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One thought on “Time Lord of Gallifrey, Now in Flesh Appearing … (a Christmas post)

  1. Well said. I struggle with the man “who walked on water” concept. Who “changed water into wine.” And of course there is the Moses who parted the Red Sea….and the “Daniel who calmed the lions” (or at least they didn’t eat him.) So many figures in the Bible with super human characteristics. I question the whole Bible, to be honest. But like a good book you read – where you commit a phrase or sentence to your thinking,- there is a line from the Bible that has always meant more to me as a way of living than just a line from the Bible. “What does God require of you: To act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.” I know where that quote comes from too, but see?…it’s not even important to me to say where. Therefore,….. that God became Man? Good for us. As a kid it was all a good Christmas story. And now??….it’s just all good. Let’s hope more for Peace in 2015 and…. make it happen. It’s long overdue.

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