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Meekness and Majesty
When you read this the Christmas season will be over. The avalanche of Christmas shopping flyers will have given way to 'Back to School' specials or some such excuse to part us from what funds we have left after the holiday season.
But as I write the piped carols which have tortured shoppers for what seems like months now are still playing and the angst of what to buy for whom is still palpable.
Meanwhile the odd nativity display can be spotted around the place – including the cover of this week's Time magazine – reminding us that all this is supposed to have something to do with celebrating the birth of Christ. And in churches we are reading once again the early chapters of Matthew and Luke, reacquainting ourselves with the narratives that first introduced us to now over-familiar elements: a pregnant teenager, a star in the east, a borrowed manger, angels, shepherds, magi and gifts.
We tend to conflate the accounts given by Matthew and Luke into one Christmas story. But taken separately they have an interesting difference in emphasis. Matthew introduces his subject as "the birth of Jesus the Messiah." This child is to be Saviour, Emmanuel, "God with us", "king of the Jews" and "ruler". Magi from foreign lands come to pay homage. They visit Mary and Jesus in a house and offer precious gifts.1
On the other hand, Luke underlines the lowly circumstances of Jesus' entry to the world. He tells us of there being "no room in the inn" and the need to improvise hastily with "bands of cloth" and the animals' manger when the birth occurs. Jesus is visited by peasant shepherds rather than lordly magi.2 In the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges her "lowliness" and anticipates that through this birth God will lift up the lowly and bring down the powerful from their thrones.3
Here are two windows on one reality. The birth narratives embody the paradox that is consistent with all that Scripture says of Jesus – the paradox expressed in Graham Kendrick's song "Meekness and Majesty". While they have chosen to give different emphases in their opening chapters, a reading of each Gospel as a whole shows clearly that Matthew is as aware of Jesus' 'meekness' as Luke is of his 'majesty'.
It is the meekness of Jesus that I want to dwell on here. I am pondering again the opening words of that Graham Kendrick song: "Meekness and majesty, manhood and deity . . . ." Without being over-analytical of what I think is a great worship song, I am wondering whether 'meekness' is assumed here to relate to Jesus' humanity, while 'majesty' pertains to his divinity? Perhaps that's just the assumption that I've been making.
In the Incarnation Jesus – rightfully the Son of God and King of Kings – takes on lowly human nature and is "clothed with humility". Paul seems to echo this view in the wonderful hymn-like passage to the Philippians.4
So what's the issue? Mark Philps, in an interesting little book entitled The Power of Meekness, points out a problem that arises if we dichotomise Jesus' meekness and majesty as expressions of his humanity and divinity respectively. The problem can be clearly shown if we return for a moment to Matthew's Gospel. We have seen that Matthew signals very clearly from the beginning that Jesus is Messiah and Emmanuel, God with us. This theme continues through the Gospel. At one point Jesus makes this explicit claim:
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."5
So far so good. This is Jesus' true status: the Son, the heir and the revelation of God. But the discourse continues:
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."6
If Jesus is the one who reveals the true nature of God (as the New Testament declares), what is the meaning of this "I am"? As Philps points out, to see the first statement as an expression of his divinity and the second in terms of his humanity "seems hard to square with our intuitive sense that in Christ we meet an integrated personality rather than a Clark Kent figure who sometimes disappears to change into Superman."7
In other words, Jesus is not saying "I am really the Son of God, but temporarily I am meek and lowly in heart." Certainly his willingness to take on humanity is a profound expression of his meekness and lowliness, but these qualities are claimed by Jesus to be part of his essential character, along with his Sonship. The most challenging dimension of this realisation for me is this: if the Son reveals the true nature of the Father, then we cannot escape the conclusion that meekness and humility are aspects of the eternal being of the Godhead itself.
To emphasise the striking nature of this truth I have deliberately been retaining the word 'meek' in my rendering of Jesus' words in Matthew 11:28. Many translations have "I am gentle and humble in heart," but that is a softening of the Greek words praus and tapeinos. Praus is used also in the third beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."8 'Gentle' hardly seems adequate in that context.
'Meek' in this biblical sense conveys a quality of character that willingly defers to the will of another (usually God) without denying or denigrating one's own identity. The opposite of meekness is hubris, arrogance, self-exaltation, rebellious disregard for God and others. The other word used here by Jesus, tapeinos, echoes Mary's themes of 'lowliness' in the Magnificat. Again it is the antithesis of prideful self-exaltation and obsession with power and speaks of a willingness to take the lowest place.
To discover that these qualities, so often limited to human experience, originate in the divine being is not merely of theological interest. As always, the way in which we understand and image God deeply affects our approach to being human, our spirituality, our relationships and our mission.
I'm not sure that anyone would (or could) have invented such an understanding of God in whom meekness and majesty exist in eternal harmony, not just temporarily in the Incarnation. This only makes sense in a Trinitarian perspective. It speaks of the mystery of the interrelationships within the Godhead which provide the paradigm for relationships between humans created in the divine image:
The meekness of Christ rebukes human pride and pretensions to independence as foolish and misguided. Limitation is intrinsic not only to humanity but to deity as well. Absolute freedom – the rejection of all limits – is the denial of relationship. To be in relationship with another is to accept limits on your freedom . . . .
If meekness is the willingness to let God be God, it is equally the willingness to let other people be themselves. The gentleness which is one aspect of meekness is a strong kind of gentleness which holds us back from inappropriate interference in other people's lives. It is a respect for the image of God in another human being which cautions us to tread warily in their presence."9
So often our ideas of the power of God are limited, one-dimensional and worldly. This worldly notion of power comes down to who can successfully enforce their will over other wills. Who will win if there is a battle? Who has the biggest army, the biggest bomb? "My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there's nothing my God cannot do."
We live in a world where religious fundamentalists once again invoke God's name in war. Even in New Zealand Christians seek to influence opinion by mounting a show of force (as in numbers and noise).
Understandably, in one sense, some of God's people want to see the kingdom advance with mighty demonstrations of divine power, but the uniqueness of Christ's revelation needs more than ever to reshape our view of mission and the surprising workings of God's redemptive power, symbolised in the lowliness of both manger and cross.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.10