The Coming Life of Christ
A version of this post originally appeared in a December 2020 issue of the Methodist Recorder.
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:4)
Biological imagery appears throughout the bible. Agricultural images proliferate — wheat and grapes; field, pasture, and vineyard. Wilderness images abound — desert and deer; lion, owl, and ostrich. Some are safe. Others remind us of the power and profound otherness to be found in creation. Leviathan became a byword for all that God does in nature beyond the reach and interest of humanity. Leviathan was not made for us, nor we for it.
We have domesticated the Earth, turned it into a human home. For the first time in history, civilization surrounds patches of wilderness and not the other way around. Around the globe, satellites give us power to communicate and find our way. We have sculpted hills and valleys into well-lit paths, soft lawns, and smooth floors. We have subdivided and covered and air-conditioned our spaces. Few in Britain have visited the remote places where other life still rules, where stars shine undimmed by human lights.
To be alive is to have power and agency, to shape the world around you. Human agency has been so powerful in recent centuries that we forget how unpredictable life can be. And then, the coronavirus reminded us that life is not ours to control. Boris Johnson spoke of this realization as humility before nature. We are not alone in the world and, at times, we must respect the power of life which transcends human interests and human perspectives.
It is a very uncomfortable place to be — a place of suffering and of agony. In such a world, it makes sense to fear both nature and the author of nature. It makes sense to worry about a world beyond our control. This first, or else nothing else makes sense. And yet, in this, there is also hope. There is a possibility that the world can become something more than it is.
As a theologian of biology, I spend my time thinking about what we mean when we speak of “life.” What does it mean to value life, to choose life, to bring life? Is life the same for humans and hamsters, bugs and bacteria? Is the virus alive? And what does it mean to worship a living God?
These are not the same “life,” but they are linked by their ability to change the world, to reshape their environment. Sometimes we like the changes and sometimes we hate them, but we recognize in life a power to make things different. Living things have power over us and power over the world. All life is powerful and unpredictable, and humans often seem to be the most powerful and the most unpredictable actors in the universe. But, God is more powerful and more unpredictable — and God does not always do what we want. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we prepare for the arrival of a living God. We remember that Jesus made the whole world new. And yet, we also recall that Jesus entered the wilderness with us, faced the suffering and agony that comes from living with neighbours, human and otherwise. No matter how much we try, God has something better in mind for us than we have in mind for ourselves. Sometimes salvation looks nothing at all like domestication. It looks more like vulnerability and hope. It looks like a child in a manger.
In the coming week, I invite you to join me in asking what has been revealed by coronavirus — the world as it is and the world we have made. I invite you to join me in asking what has been revealed by Christ — the world as it can be. A world without life is simple, mechanical, predictable. It can only be what it is. A living world can be so much more.
I pray for clear vision, so that I may see what life is up to. I pray for endurance in a time of trials and unexpected insights. I pray for compassion, curiosity, and creativity to see the seeds God has planted. I pray for patience as they grow. And, on Christmas Day, I will rejoice to greet God, whose life, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
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