The Wholly Other One of Us - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13–14

Jesus is God and a human being.

If that statement is familiar to you – if that statement doesn't make you throw up your hands and storm off across the room, shocked by such a claim – then we need to talk.

This passage from Daniel 7 is another promise of God's coming Messiah, but it is a promise turned up to 11. It echoes God's promises to David, sure, but it also amplifies them. This king is being given an eternal dominion over the whole planet. Even more, he isn't clearly human anymore. He is one “like a son of man,” appearing before the Almighty in the clouds. In Daniel 10, where this same figure pops up again, he is described as having a face like lightning and glowing eyes. He is a figure somehow both human and divine.

In the ancient Greek world there was a chain of being. There were the gods, and below them were men, and below them were, well, women and slaves (our love affair with Greek democracy has always been a bit complicated), and so on and so forth. Much could be said about this way of thinking, but one upshot of it is that there was some sense that we were pretty great. When you laid it out we were much closer to the gods than to rocks and animals.

In the ancient Jewish world and in their Scriptures there is perhaps something like a chain, at least in that humanity is seen as over the rest of creation, but God is not on it. It is not, as for the Greeks, that He is the greatest, and then we are just below Him. There is a fundamental divide between Adonai and Adam, that of creator to creature. Adam was infinitely closer to being like a slug than he was to being like the Lord.

God's deity means He is fundamentally unlike anything else. “There is none like You, O LORD; You are great, and great is Your name in might.” (Jeremiah 10:6) The entire universe, in all its breadth and complexity, stands to the mind of the Lord like a single novel to the mind of an author. He is the power on which all powers rest. He is the paper on which time's line is drawn. And all of this means that He is simply not like human beings. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19)

God is not a man, the Psalmist says... and yet we encounter in Daniel this one who is like a son of man but also, somehow, like the Almighty. Such a fusion unsettled some early interpreters who insisted this must be someone other than the Messiah. Others, though, acknowledged what Daniel seemed to hint – that the coming deliverer of God's people was not just David's descendant but also, somehow, the coming of God Himself.

All of which gains a particular poignancy when we realize that, in the midst of this puzzlement about Daniel's prophecy, Jesus Himself claimed the title “son of man” as His own. Over and over in His ministry He uses it to name who He is and explain what He has come to do. This humble Galilean carpenter-prophet, born a sojourner and laid in a manger – the way He described Himself was as this One who came on the clouds before the Almighty.

The mystery of the incarnation is profound. Gallons of ink have been spilled by befuddled theologians seeking to explain it. Yet its central claim is simple: that in this Christ-child we welcome at Christmas we find not just a king or a saint or the best of men. What we find is God Himself come into our history and our humanity. The Creator has come to His creation. The Father has given all things over to the Son. The wholly other has become one of us, and now everything changes. “All peoples, nations, and languages” will be His, and “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

-John Donne, Annunciation