The Lectionary texts for the first Sunday after Christmas (also the “Holy Name of Jesus” and the “Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God,” depending on one’s tradition) offer two New Testament Epistle options: Galatians 4:4-7 and Philippians 2:5-11. The Epistle texts here allow the church to see the early Biblical theological reflection on the events that would later be recorded in the Gospels. What was merely recounted with surprise in the story of the Angel Gabriel (the Virgin Mary, the Baby born in a manger, and Heavenly Hosts exclaiming the glory of God) is, in Paul’s texts, given theological form and shape. Even more than this, however, is the truth that the Incarnation of God had a trajectory to it that is cosmic and life-changing, demanding to be proclaimed!
For both texts we will look at the presence of the Incarnation in the argument, its intended trajectory, and the focus of its proclamation.
Both texts are explicit about an incarnation of the divine Son of God in unexpected and dramatic ways.
In Galatians, Paul describes the event of the Incarnation as one that inaugurates the “fullness of time.” Though the Incarnation appears obscure in terms of historical detail – Jesus being born in an unassuming Gentile town, in the midst of austere circumstances, witnessed only by shepherds – it is actually the starting point of that which all human history has been heading in the providence of God.
In Philippians, the event of the Incarnation is one that Paul describes as the “emptying” of the Son who had “equality with God.” The one who could claim the rights of divinity took the humbling step of becoming human, “being born in the likeness of men.” Paul wants to remind his readers of the glory of Christ that was intentionally surrendered in order that tongues would confess him as Lord.
The glory of the Incarnation in these two Pauline texts is actually stated in terms of its corresponding humility – God was born of a woman as human flesh under the law, God was born in human likeness as a servant not exploiting his divinity. A humbling indeed.
Redemption and Exaltation
The humbling reality of the Incarnation has a trajectory in each of these two Pauline texts, and here is where we see the purpose of humbling taking divergent roads, which, however, will intersect once again.
In Galatians, the inauguration of the fullness of time has brought about the “redemption” of those under the law, allowing them to be no longer slaves but those “adopted as sons.” Being born of a woman under the law, God’s Son provides the means by which humans, also born of a woman under the law, might move from a self-inflicted prison of slavery to a glorious field of freedom. The Incarnation here in Galatians is a redemptive action that restores believers to the status of heirs – heirs of God Almighty.
The Incarnation is itself not the end sum of this “fullness” but necessary first step of entering into that which God desires to redeem: “born of a woman, born under the law.” As St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “That which was not assumed is not healed.” Jesus came to assume the nature of humanity in order that he might heal it and thus redeem those under the curse of the law.
In Philippians, the trajectory of the Incarnation (the emptying of the Son of God and being found in human likeness) serves two purposes. The first is that Jesus is the exemplary one whose life and actions put the welfare of others above his own. Paul is intent that Christians not justify and exhibit “selfish ambition or conceit,” particularly in their relationships with one another. If Christ refused to exploit his own divinity in order to humble himself to death on our behalf, why would we exploit the illusion of our fallen condition in a way that would serve our own interests? In what way could it be said that we are united with Christ with such behavior?
Yet, the intended exhortation of Paul’s great hymn of Philippians 2 is not limited to mere Christological exemplarism. That is to say, the imitation of Christ’s humility is not the preaching moment of the passage. The humbling of Christ is the paradoxical means to his own exaltation – an exaltation that is intended to move hearts to recognize his Lordship. This paradox – that humility is the path to glory is spoken of by Jesus himself as he instructs his disciples:
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12 ESV)
The intended end of Jesus’ exaltation is to move knees to bow and tongues to confess that Jesus is Lord. But that exaltation follows Jesus’ humbling, the humbling event of the Incarnation itself completed in Jesus’ humiliating yet obedient death on the cross.
The combination of these two texts nicely sums up Martin Luther’s famous maxim on the freedom of a Christian: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none [Galatians]. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all [Philippians]. T
The Incarnation of the Son of God in both texts leads to the proclamation of the humbling of Jesus on our behalf to the glory of the Father.
In Galatians, God sent his Son into the world, born of a woman, born under the law – in order to redeem through him those who faith now proclaim, by the Spirit, “Abba – Father!” Those who proclaim “Abba” are not slaves; that would not be the proper means of address. “Abba,” while certainly an address of respect, is also an intimate term not casually offered. Through the redemption brought about by God’s Son, God’s Spirit moves the hearts of adopted sons to acknowledge, truthfully and personally, their status as heirs to the blessings of the Father. The Incarnation is the inauguration of the fullness of time that now allows the redeemed to proclaim their familial reconciliation with God!
In Philippians, God sent his Son into the world, found in the form of a servant in the likeness of man, in order that “every knee should bend . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Once again, the action of the humbling of the Son of God on our behalf leads to the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ from the mouths of those on bended knee, a proclamation that glorifies the Father.
In both texts the trajectory of the humbling of the Son of God in the Incarnation is meant for the end of a proclamation that glorifies the Father. In Galatians, the humbling of Christ gives us a present freedom that allows us to now proclaim: “Abba – Father!” In Philippians, the humbling of Christ who is then exalted gives us a humbling upon our knees that compels us to proclaim who is truly Lord, and that to the glory of the Father!
This, then, is a potential preaching moment for these Epistle texts that highlight the Incarnation of our Lord: the redemption and the exaltation that came through the humbling reality of the incarnation moves human hearts to “Proclaim!”
We have sometimes allowed ourselves to pause too long in theological reflection on the absurdity and the humiliation of the Incarnation, when, in fact, the Epistles here call us to remember that it is intended to move hearts to “confess” and “cry out.” These texts describe far more than a “knowing” of God’s action on our behalf. It describes an “exclamation” of God’s action on our behalf through Jesus Christ.
To the confession of faith that God became flesh and dwelt among us, the corresponding question is not always “by what means” but also “so what?” Paul, forever the preacher of the faith, provides this answer. Through the humbling of Christ we can now know God in the most personal and intimate of ways: “Abba – Father.” Through the humbling of Christ we now know that because he is the exalted Lord – we can serve others in the freedom his redemption brings us.
This is where our response of faith can join with the angels in proclamation that Christmas evening: “Glory to God in the highest!”
The Rev. Troy J. Onsager is pastor of Escalon Presbyterian Church in Escalon, CA.