Friday, November 17, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: The Garden of Eden and the Nativity

Before we leave the Garden of Eden narratives, we need to attend to a few other parallels between the stories of creation and the unveiling of God’s new creation in Christ Jesus. We’ll do one of the parallels this week (how the Nativity stories allude to creation), and another after Thanksgiving week (the Tree of Life). Unlike the preceding studies, these are parallels inferred from the symbols in the stories, but are not specifically indicated in the textual exegesis of these passages.

Some of the parallels have to do with the stories of Christ’s nativity. First, let’s take a look at the annunciation passage, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary about God’s plan for her. The first part of Gabriel’s announcement (Luke 1:30-33) refers back to the Old Testament prophesies of the Davidic Messiah-king. But when Mary asks Gabriel how these things will come about, he says, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). The first phrase immediately calls to mind the first scene of creation (Gen. 1:2), when the Holy Spirit comes and hovers over the waters of the newborn world. And the second phrase uses a word that immediately evokes an Old Testament parallel: “overshadow”—this was the same term used for the way the presence of God overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, filling that place with his shekinah glory. So within the space of two sentences, Gabriel has connected his announcement to Mary with the creation of the world, the presence of God in the Temple, and the Davidic kingship: three Old Testament allusions that cover almost the whole scope of the salvation-history of ancient Israel. I referenced some of these parallels when I wrote my poetic rendering of Luke 1:35 in my Evangeliad:

The Holy Spirit will descend on you,
Hov’ring in blessing o'er a world born new!
The Most High's power will o’ershadow thee:
Shekinah glory of His majesty,
As in the Temple, full of glory’s awe;
The one born of you shall be Son of God!

The early church fathers also liked to draw a parallel between Mary and Eve when they considered the annunciation-passage in Luke: they noted that Mary in some sense recapitulates Eve’s role. Here is a woman, standing in the light of God’s creative activity (for Eve, the creation of the world; and for Mary, the New Creation), and faced with a decision: to obey God, or to disobey him. Eve chose to disobey, but Mary submitted to God’s will. I’ve also referenced this parallel in my poetry: take the following extract from my “Incarnation Hymn.”

The Word that knit the universe was knit in Mary’s womb,
The tapestry of ages, upon her humble loom.
She obeyed where Eve had sinned, and with her act of faith,
The Maker took our nature, to save our sinful race.

Even the smallest of details in the nativity story were taken as recapitulations of the Garden of Eden. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a stable (more specifically, Luke tells us that the infant Jesus was placed in a manger, and from that information it is inferred that they were in a stable). Early Christian traditions, available to us in other written documents from the first few centuries AD, help to fill out our familiar picture of the nativity: the presence of animals with them in the stable, and the portrayal of the stable being built into a little cave on the hillside.

One of the interesting things to consider regarding this story is that the Gospel writers often select stories from Jesus’ life that illustrate the ways in which Jesus recapitulated the sacred history of humanity. Matthew’s gospel is the clearest example of this: he chooses to present the stories of Jesus that show him as the recapitulation of Israel’s history. So Matthew presents the holy family’s flight to Egypt and their return, along with Herod’s murder of the male babies in Bethlehem, all of which parallel the exodus account in the Old Testament. He shows Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness (a parallel to Israel’s 40-year wanderings), and Jesus as the new Moses in Matthew 5, teaching the essence of God’s law from the mountain. Even the appearance of the Wise Men, who are Gentiles, fits into this theme: it is a fulfillment of the promise so often made to Israel in the pages of the prophets, that all nations would come to Israel to worship the true God there. And this isn’t just a case of Matthew making stuff up, or forcing Jesus’ life history into his own particular set of boxes: other early Christian documents note stories from Jesus life that also fit this theme of the recapitulation of Israel. In one of them, The Protoevangelium of James, there are two midwives present shortly after the birth of Christ, which, if true, would be another parallel with the exodus story of the Old Testament (see Exodus 1).

Luke, however, is not quite as interested in showing Jesus as merely the recapitulation of Israel; he wants to get the point across that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. So he often chooses stories that display Jesus’ interaction with Gentiles, and he, unlike Matthew, traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam. There might be some significance, then, to the nativity stories that Luke chooses to recount, two episodes of which include the presence of animals. Jesus is born in a stable, with animals present, and the first announcement of his birth is made to the shepherds, also with animals present. It may very well be that Luke is using this particular story to illustrate what he makes explicit in the genealogy one chapter later: that Jesus is the fulfillment of Adam’s experience, and ultimately, of all humanity. Just as Adam came into the world in close proximity to, and relationship with, members of the animal kingdom, so too does Christ. Jesus is the new Adam, sent to reconcile humanity with God, to undo the effects of the Fall, and to restore humanity to its original purpose as the image of God and the priest of all creation.

If one wanted to stretch the implications further, one could even take a few of the extra-biblical details of the nativity story and read hints of recapitulation into them. If the stable Jesus was born in was actually a cave, as the early Christian document The Protoevangelium of James claims, this could be taken as a sign that God intended Christ to recapitulate the earliest experiences of the human race—dwelling in nature rather than in manmade shelters. Once again, this is more of a stretch, but it could be another indication of what Luke was getting at (and what Paul says outright in his letters): that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of humanity itself, recapitulating Adam’s experience, and constituting in himself a new humanity that will be liberated from sin.