“And God himself is born,” a Christmas hymn devotion
based on the hymns of Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
We begin life remarkably vulnerable. Infants cannot care for themselves but need loving adults to nurture them, keep them warm, protect them, and show them that the world is a safe, loving place.
This was also true of the baby Jesus. He came into the world much like you and I did. He needed Mary, Joseph, and others to feed, hold, change, and teach him. Jesus, however, was far from ordinary. We profess this child, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, is God in the flesh.
How can this be? How do we comprehend that God, who is eternal and not bounded by time or space or any limitations, becomes a human being? Theologians call this paradox the incarnation. Somehow, Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
A poetic response
As one might expect from the poet-theologian of the early Methodist movement, Charles Wesley’s descriptions of this paradox are biblical, beautiful, and poetic. For example, hymn 6 of his Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord reads:
Whom all the angels worship,
Lies hid in human nature;
See the stupendous blessing Which God to us hath given! A child of man, In length a span, Who fills both earth and heaven. (verse 4)
Theologians through the centuries have tried to explain how this works. You can learn more about our United Methodist understanding of the incarnation here and here.
Wesley’s key to understanding the incarnation lies in Philippians 2:5-11, which many scholars believe is one of the earliest hymns of the Christian church. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one great hymn writer was inspired by another. In this Bible passage, the Apostle Paul describes the miracle of Jesus emptying himself of his God-traits to become a human being.
For example, Jesus emptied himself of his omnipresence, being everywhere all the time. Instead, he was confined to time and space. He gave up his omniscience, being all-knowing. While he could see into people’s lives and hearts better than anyone, he had limited, human knowledge. He also surrendered his omnipotence, being all-powerful. He performed miracles and healings, but there were human limits he accepted. Jesus emptied himself and became vulnerable for us.
Wesley echoes this understanding in other Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord. He writes:
Lo! He lays his glory by, Emptied of his majesty! See the God who all things made, Humbly in a manger laid. (Hymn 12, verse 2)
In another hymn from the same collection, we read:
Emptied of his majesty, Of his dazzling glories shorn, Being’s source begins to be, And God himself is BORN! (Hymn 4, verse 2)
God coming to us so completely and yet so vulnerably is the miracle of the incarnation. It is the miracle of Christmas when we celebrate God coming to dwell among us.
Living the song
Many feel vulnerable this Christmas. Some live in faraway places. Others are right next door. Some don’t have enough to eat, struggle to find clean water, don’t feel safe in their own homes or neighborhoods, feel rejected by others, and so much more.
Through these hymns, we remember that God did not wait for us to find our way to heaven. Instead, God emptied God’s self of all but love to come in the person of Jesus for the sake of us all.
Jesus became vulnerable to share love with the vulnerable.