It’s a drag to have someone speak over your head.
It can happen your first day at work when your boss forgets that you are entering new territory, or when your teenage grandchild helps you “master” Facebook. It takes place every Sunday when pastors fill their sermons with every ten-dollar word they ever read in a theological dictionary.
My first year of seminary, I had a class where every lecture left me so confused I wondered if I had wandered into an immersion Hebrew course. My classmates commented regularly about how smart the professor must have been to have been able to speak at such a high level. I just wished he would come down to my level so that I could understand what in the world he was talking about.
It is frustrating to have someone speak over your head. Thankfully, every Christmas we remember that God wants to communicate with us in a way that lowers our confusion, rather than heightening it. Reformed theologian John Calvin called it God’s “condescending” to us — speaking at our level, rather than over our heads. In his masterwork “Institutes,” he says that God speaks to us like a nurse speaks to a baby. While this divine baby talk can’t capture the fullness of God, it shows us God’s choice to “stoop far below his proper height” so that we better understand God’s love.
This stooping means that God comes to us as the newborn king. In Charles Wesley’s carol “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” we sing these words hinting at the condescending miracle of the Incarnation:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate deity,
Pleased in flesh with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
If God were not veiled in flesh, the divine love for us might go right over our heads. But an incarnate Deity who has dwelt with us connects with us at a level we can easily understand. After all, Emmanuel means “God with us,” not “Jesus way up so high you might as well forget about ever understanding anything about God.”
Wesley’s famous lyrics echo one of Paul’s most foundational passages: the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2.
“[Jesus] made himself nothing
By taking the very nature of a servant,
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient unto death—
Even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8 TNIV)
Jesus comes all the way down from heaven to make sure we understand who God is. This means a march from Bethlehem to Calvary; from the manger to the cross. In his sacrifice, he shows us his love in a way that could never go over our heads. The Godhead we see veiled in flesh is the one who condescends to die for us while we are still sinners.
In that same passage from Philippians, Paul challenges us to have the “same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (Phil 2:6b). If Jesus condescends to us, to make sure God’s love does not go over our heads, we too have a call to live out the Gospel in ways that keep God’s love from going over our neighbors’ heads.
How might we do that this Advent? Even more importantly, how can we begin to live lives of sacrificial love that extend far beyond simply adopting a family at Christmas? Beyond simply dropping some extra soup at the food pantry? How can we rely on Jesus to take up his cross and love our neighbors so that they cannot help but understand that God is head over heels in love with them?
When the Holy Spirit strengthens us to do this, those words from Wesley become doubly true. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” refers not just to Jesus the Incarnate One, but also to us, the body of Christ, who join Jesus in his mission for God’s love to go over no one’s head.
CHARLES B. HARDWICK is director of theology, worship and education for the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).