The angel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1)
In the name of the one God, holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
In the very first book of the Bible, in the very first chapter, we are told that God created humankind in God’s own image—and then, as if to underscore the point, the verse is inverted and repeated: in the image of God, he created us.
Now whenever something is repeated in the Bible, it is a pretty clear sign that we are to take notice. And so the conviction that human beings are not simply biological accidents, but are endowed with the very likeness of God’s own being, has become deeply lodged as one of the most central convictions of our faith. It’s what in the Jewish way of thinking is the tsolem elohim: a convergence between our humanity and God’s divinity such that the two are inextricably intertwined.
But more importantly, this convergence is established by the fact that God did not create us simply to exist, but in order to be loved, and to love in return. As God loves us, so too are we able to love God, and to love one another. So this likeness to God, this capacity for love, for self-sacrifice and for self-giving, confers upon us human beings a nature unlike any other creature. And it means that in each of our human acts of love, we represent to one another the initiatory love with which God first loved us. It is in that sense that we are the unique image of God in creation, so that, as the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put it, “The only real symbol of God is humanity.”
Now from this conviction that we are made in the image of God, there flows another, which is that human beings are not just created equal in terms of rights and responsibilities—we are also endowed with an equal dignity. As Heschel put it, “each and every person must be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing [nothing less than] the king of kings.” In modern civil society, of course, we are quite accustomed to discussing and defending the fundamental equality of each and every person—we affirm equality before the law, equality of opportunity, and so on. But biblical faith significantly raises the bar on the idea of equality, insisting in addition on an equality of dignity that is due to all persons. We could, after all, be equally though unjustly treated, yet when human dignity is introduced into the equation, such treatment becomes untenable.
Now you don’t need me to tell you that despite the strength of this biblical message, it has throughout history been consistently and relentlessly overlooked and diminished. Every act of violence against another human being, every form of prejudice, every system of inequality or injustice, is in some way a denial of the dignity of human nature conferred on it by being a likeness to the God of all creation. And as Willie Nelson puts it in one of his songs, “it’s been that way since the get-go.”
In today’s gospel, however, God takes the initiative to restate powerfully and unambiguously the dignity of human being by taking human nature upon himself in Jesus Christ. The story, of course, is the familiar account of how the angel Gabriel visits Mary, announcing the news that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that she shall conceive and bear a son whose name shall be Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Being the modern people that we are, our temptation will be to hear that story as a singular event, something that happened to a single person a long time ago, strange and uncanny yet historically bound and not directly involving us.
But that would be to miss the real implications of Gabriel’s message. The larger meaning into which the story of the Annunciation calls us is that in Jesus God did not simply take on Mary’s own flesh and blood, but rather that through her Jesus “took our nature upon him” (as the Eucharistic prayer puts it). Through Mary, God comes among us in one person, Jesus Christ; but through Jesus, God takes on the entirety of human being.
So by becoming one with our human nature in Jesus, God affirms the basic dignity of every individual—except that this time it is not simply based on our likeness to God in the creation myth from Genesis, but on God’s own dwelling among us as one of us. God becomes human, in other words, so that we know that we too are like God. Or as the early church theologian, St. Irenaeus famously put it, “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.”
So what does this mean for us? Well, at its most basic, it means that we owe to one another a spirit of profound reverence, for it is in our manner of meeting and interacting that we discover how each of us is the image of God that we were created to be. You may be familiar with a rather corny country western song sung by George Strait, about a father who sees his baby girl for the first time, and then crones rather sentimentally “I saw God today.” That may seem a bit emotionally over-wrought, yet there is a certain truth in that sentiment, isn’t there? As symbols of God, we do see God in one another, from earliest infancy to latest old age, in all nationalities and ethnicities, in all sorts and conditions of people.
And this is the context, it seems to me, in which we as Christian people must try to come to terms with the difficult questions of violence and prejudice that have recently been so much in the news. If we are all created with the equal dignity of being a likeness of the king of kings (as Heschel put it), then that dignity should always impose upon us a great caution, reticence and restraint about any form of violence that would do injury to or distort that image in another person, however justified it may seem in the moment. It was also Rabbi Heschel who said that, “The greatest sin is to forget that we are made in the image of God.” He meant that such forgetfulness becomes a sin, when it causes us no longer to regard another human being as God’s own image, opening the door for us to try to legitimate the dehumanization upon which violence relies.
The issues which surround the events in our country’s streets and prisons are obviously complex, and no one perspective can fully take into account the totality of those complexities. But in this season of Advent, with its themes of judgment and repentance, it is good to follow the lead of the scriptures to touch base again with the first principles of faith that can give us guidance. Like the star that led shepherds and wise men to the manger, we need points of reference that can act as a moral compass, reminding us of the dignity that was given us to all of us, each of us, in the beginning. We must not lose sight of who, in God’s estimation, we are.
Let us pray:
To thee, O Christ, Word of the Father, we offer our lowly praises and humble thanks. For love of our human race, thou didst most wonderfully choose to be made human, and to take our nature as nevermore to lay it by, that we might be regenerate and born again by thy life-giving Spirit, and restored in the image of God, to whom, one blessed and undivided Trinity, be all honor, might, majesty, and glory, both now and for ever. Amen.