“The Incarnation of Christ was not a mere 33-year event” – John Williamson Nevin.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Right at the end of my tenure at AlrockLive.com I was given a sampler to listen to of upcoming artists who, were I still working in the music industry I would be covering today. One of the bands on that sampler was a group named: “The Rend Collective Experiment.” I was almost instantly drawn to their musical style, with a Scotch-Irish heritage, their Celtic, Irish Folk style made me want to get up and dance. After I left ARL I fell out of touch with them, to the point the only song of theirs I had any knowledge of was “My Lighthouse” which was their first hit. I was not even aware they had changed their name to plain and simple “Rend Collective” until my wife and I had the chance to see them in April of 2017. For those of you who have been long time readers, you know this concert was just two months after we had lost our first child. Since then their album Good News has enjoyed copious play and a special place in our hearts. The song “Weep with Me” the scripture and story behind it were used by God to bring healing in that dark night of our lives. But this Christmas it has been a different Rend Collective album that has been played on repeat, A Jolly Irish Christmas Vol 2.
If I were writing a review of this album it would be a 4.5-5-star review. Which is hard to give any Christmas Album simply because finding creative ways to perform old carols and produce new content that will last is exceedingly difficult in such a niche market. But Rend Collective has managed to create a thoroughly original sounding album with new spins on Christmas Classics such as “Christmas in Kelarny” and “The First Noel” and more, while giving us some incredible original, theologically rich content that is extremely practical to the Christian Life in 2020. Before I get to one such song, let me just say that we may not think we needed a Irish Folk rendition of “Good King Wenceslas” but we did.
One of the original songs that stands out is “Emmanuel, You’re one of Us.” In the song the singer identifies what we are all feeling. That is does not feel like Christmas this year, that we have been through a lot. He acknowledges the pain and suffering of friends who have lost jobs and family members from the Pandemic. He also acknowledges the frustration so many feel about how 2020 has played out all over the world. But then he pivots with the lines of the chorus: “But I know Emmanuel, you’re one of us, You left your throne to wear our scars, Though Christmas lights may lose their spark, And winter’s cold may break our hearts, Oh Christmas means, Emmanuel you’re one of us” Again, as music critic this would have been one of those stop moments. You are nodding along, identifying with the artist and then he throws in the but, the conjunction. This is a technique the Apostle Paul employs to great effect, “One you were this, but now you are this>” is a common construction in the Epistles. Rend Collective formulates it as: “2020 was this, but Emmanuel is one of us.” Similar to what they did with “Weep with Me” which I mentioned above, they take the full implications of a passage of scripture and lay it bear in one line. “Emmanuel, God with us” is one of the names the Prophet Isaiah gives for the Christ Child in Isaiah 9:2-7, Gabriel echoes this in his announcement to Mary in Luke 1.
But as with everything with Rend Collective, you have to look higher than the basic, low protestant view of the Incarnation to fully understand what they are saying here. We all agree that “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” We would even agree that God did come and visit us (as Zechariah says in the Benedictus, Luke 1:57-80). But that is only part of the picture. God, after all, visits Moses in a burning bush, in a cloud of fire and fury, God visits people throughout the Old Testament, and He is said to be “with” Israel at all times, since His glory crowd dwells at the Temple in Jerusalem. God certainly could have come in this manner, appeared on the scene as a full-grown adult with “flesh from heaven” as the ancient heretics like to think of him. But He did not, He came as a baby who was conceived by the Power of the Holy Spirit, grew in the womb of a women, was born to her, had human flesh and human bones, nursed like a human child, grew up like a human child, experienced life as a child, an adolescent, a man.
It is this, born, part that we have a hard time with in our industrial, medially informed age. Which is likely one of the reasons most Christians do not believe the accounts of the Gospels. But the whole arch of the Old Testament, the whole thrust of all the law, the wisdom literature, the prophets, all of them, looked forward to God himself coming among us. John, the forerunner, would be followed by God himself, putting on human flesh and form to apparent spectacular mediocrity, according to Isaiah. If you read the Magnificat and Benedictus in Luke 1 and the Nunc Dimities in Luke 2, This is also what Mary, Zechariah and Simeon knew was happening before their eyes. John would prepare the way for Jesus whose name was also “Emmanuel, God with us.” Mary and Zechariah knew, Simeon knew (but let people sing the song please, its harmless poetry). But in becoming God with us, he become God one of us, he emptied himself of all he had and, in humble obedience, became like the very people who sit in our pews on Sunday with one exception, He never sinned. There was no time when He was not God, but there was also no time He was not human. Two natures, one substance, existing in perfect Hypostasis.
This is hard for us to grasp in our Gnostic western society where we treat the Incarnation as an impossibility, using the biblically false statement that: “the divine does not interact with the fleshly trappings.” Which leads us to be more vulnerable to either dismissing the incarnation, or treating like “another bible story with a moral point” or the heretical assertion I mentioned before that “Jesus had celestial flesh” which was promoted by members of the non-magisterial, Anabaptist reformation. All these are views of the Incarnation that dimmish it or even deny it altogether. If the Devine does not interact with that which is worldly, the incarnation cannot happen as the Bible laid it out, Jesus cannot be God incarnate since God would not condescend to the flesh of the unreal world. If it is just another story with a moral point then we are not reading about a historical event, but a myth, a legend, meant to teach kids to be good humans. If Jesus had “Celestial Flesh” then the incarnation did not actually happen, and God did not come and experience life as one of his Created Beings since we do not have that same “celestial flesh.”
Therefore, a high view of the Incarnation is necessary, it happened, historically, we can know and believe it with a fair amount of certainty (there is less evidence for Pilot’s existence than the Incarnation, McDowell). The Gospels appeared much too early for these to be fanciful tales, early enough that witnesses could have refuted it, and we know Jesus’s family never did.
But here is the more practical matter, 2020 has been a rough year, this is what the Chorus of the Rend Song quoted above is responding to: “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas at all, it’s so hard to forget all that went on, Some friends lost their jobs and some families too, Some people said it was all down to you.”
It is easy for us, as Christians, to turn the blame for 2020 onto God, to look at him and ask him “Why would you let something like this happen?” The simple answer is the one Job gets during his trials, God himself is the answer. It is all parts a comforting answer, a terrifying answer and a difficult answer. We want something concrete, tangible, someone or something to blame. Yet, rend knows the answer, God is not to blame, God is the answer, Emanuel, You’re one of us, they proclaim from the rooftops, you bore these same scars, you walked this terrifying road before us. Infectious disease is nothing new to you, it doesn’t take you by surprise. All these things we are trying to pin on you, you have walked through and shown us the way through, which is God himself.
Again, this is all parts comforting and all parts terrifying. Job never gets a “Why?” answer, the reader knows why, by Job does not, and many times we do not either, we will not get a “Why” to all that has happened in 2020 other than the worldly and scientific reasons. We will get “Emanuel, God with us.” That will not be enough for many of us, but it is the only answer we are going to get from God, and we have to be okay with that until His return and all things are revealed. We must be okay with the tension that this creates in us, and with the world. Contentment, the secret to contentment, per Paul, is Christ, the Final Sign.
I love this reality, though it is hard for my human mind to focus in on. The reality of the Incarnation is that God has dwelt among us, has experienced what we experienced. Like many of us in 2020, He has wept at the tomb of His friends and family, He has faced the struggle of financial hardship and has been tempted to sin, and yet, He did not do it, and did all things perfectly. He showed us a better way to live, what Eugene Peterson calls: “The Jesus Life in the Jesus Way.” This way was so radical the religious leaders and the government conspired to kill Him. He died on the cross, was buried and rose again and then ascended into heaven, physical body and all. Then He sent to us His Holy Spirit tosh wo us how to live in this world as He did, though imperfectly, and so that we might always have “God with us” as Jesus promised we would.
What a beautiful reality in such a dark year, the light is shining and it will never be put out.
God Bless you and Merry Christmas.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner