Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!


And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.


Karl Barth, Credo – “Conceived of the Spirit, Born of the Virgin”

That Jesus Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary,” according to Barth, is to be understood as an event of “such a nature that it could not be understood from anywhere else. . . but only out of itself, and could therefore be recognised only in faith’s decision.” (Credo, 62). [The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in other words, cannot be explained on grounds other than itself. To explain it away scientifically, or to find parallels in other ancient stories, or even simply understand it as a “myth” are all grand examples of  “missing the point!”]

Together, the confession of Christ’s conception by the Spirit and birth by the Virgin point to both a “general, inner, material thing” and a “special, outer thing”; together these two statements express the “mystery of the thing, and the miracle of the sign.” (63).  From the inner perspective, these two doctrines together point to the “mystery” of the Incarnation, but from the outer perspective, they speak of the fact that “Jesus Christ as . . . God and man has God alone for His Father and therefore the Virgin Mary for His mother.” (63)

Barth insists that form and content in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth must go together, and that when form and content are sundered, both form and content suffer. Barth here affirms, just as my good friend Dustin Resch has pointed out, that the Virgin Birth is a “fitting” form of the witness to both the mystery and miracle of the incarnation. As Barth puts it, “it is just in this form and fashion that this witness has been heard by the Church right from the beginning. And it could well be that its clarity and definiteness is inseparably bound up with this form and fashion, that therefore in its clarity and definiteness it is not to be heard otherwise than in this very form and fashion” (63). [In other words, Barth argues that despite the difficulty moderns may have in accepting the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, we cannot separate its content, its meaning, from the form in which it comes to us. To accept that the Virgin Birth teaches us something but to reject that it really was so, is to fail to realize why it was precisely in this manner, in this form, that the Conception by the Spirit and the Virgin Birth was necessary. You can’t, Barth says, accept the Virgin Birth as teaching some kind of doctrinal kernel, only to deal with the report of the Virgin Birth as as mythical husk that can be now shed. Lose the Virgin birth and you lose the content of the teaching itself. Kernel and Husk cannot be separated!]

So what then is the significance of the conception and virgin birth?

1) The conception by the Spirit tells us that the “human existence of Jesus Christ in its creatureliness as distinguished from all other creatures, has its origin immediately in God, and is therefore immediately God’s own existence” (64). To be conceived by the Spirit is to say that this baby comes from God.  [This becomes very important for Barth in the Church Dogmatics where he continues to insist that the eternal procession of the Spirit cannot be “read back” as evidence of an eternal Spirituque (that the Son proceeds also from the Spirit), for the conception is a conception of the creaturely human existence of Jesus, not the eternal existence of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God.]

2) That Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary” tells us that “God’s own existence in Jesus Christ, without prejudice to the fact that here also God is the Creator, has also a human-creaturely origin and is therefore also human-creaturely existence” (64). God, in other words, freely chooses to “exist” as a God-with-humans.

Together, these two formulas tell us not that God and man come together in “infinite nearness” but that “in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God and man become one, in order for all time and unto eternity to be one in Him Who was so conceived and born. So that it is as a twofold fact that these two things can be said and must be said of Jesus Christ: He was and is God and man; but always both of them, not one without the other, and both (each in its own way!) with equal seriousness  and emphasis: neither the one nor the other under reserve, neither the one nor the other in a merely figurative, provisional, metaphorical sense” (64).

Barth goes on to reflect on the significance of John 1:14, specifically that the Word becomes (ἐγένετο) flesh (and not merely “is” flesh). To confess that the Word becomes flesh is to acknowledge the beginning of a “history.” That is, there is no divine necessity (at least none that we know of) of why the Word would have to become flesh, and we know of no human possibility by which the Word could become flesh. We can only in faith “follow this becoming, to follow this way, this event as such” (65). Furthermore, this is not something that faith enacts (i.e., it is not that it is in faith that we believe in a myth of incarnation, but it is the case that this is an event of the past–something that took place independently of our faith. Consequently, it is God who is the Subject of this action, not us (66). Incarnation is not the ascent of man to God, but a descent of God to man, in a definite history. “The power of this Incarnation, the revealing and reconciling power also of His incarnate life are completely His power” (66).

[Here I pause to remind us, as I believe Barth would, that “Incarnation” is properly defined (in accordance with John 1:14, and the doctrines of the conception of the Spirit and the Virgin Birth) only in light of God’s action. Incarnation, as such, is the action of GOD taking on human flesh. Consequently, I have consistently expressed my discontent with the now ubiquitous “incarnational” language so in vogue today in ecclesiology. While realizing that many use the term in regard to the Church only by analogy to Christ’s going into the far land of human history, I continue to point out that, along with Barth, that incarnation, like Trinity, is properly speaking, without analogy. The Church does not some way need to “become incarnate.” Even if one might appeal to the Pauline image of the Church as the body of Christ as proof that the Church is the “ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world,” this is to press the metaphor too far and misses the point that the Church already is flesh, already is creaturely. So,  as Barth points out, it is in these twin doctrines of Conception and Virgin Birth that we are told of something utterly unique and without parallel, mainly, that is it solely in Christ Jesus that there is a union of God and man. The Church, as the body of Christ, participates in that union, but only as humans. The truth of the Incarnation is that Jesus alone retains both full divinity and full humanity. The Church is not, in other words, a human and divine institution, but only a communion of human in who participate in the one union of God and man in Jesus Christ.]

Barth concludes this chapter by returning to how it is that the Conception and Virgin Birth doctrines are properly used as  “fitting” (to use Dustin Resch’s term–which I think he got from Irenaeus) means of retaining the mystery of the revelation of God’s free grace. The question of how and why the Word became flesh may never be fully understood, and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a reminder, indeed, a barricade, against delving into an arena of holy mystery where we cannot legitimately go. As Barth puts it, the Virgin Birth “is the watch before the door drawing our attention to the fact that we are here concerned with the mystery, with God’s free grace” (69). Against the modern skeptics of the Virgin Birth, Barth takes his stand along with the “Christology of the early Church” because in front of this “watch,” one is summoned to “reverence and worship” (69). The doctrine tells us that the freedom of God by the Holy Spirit to make a creature fit for communion with him is the same Holy Spirit by whom men and women are enabled to become children of God–but an enablement not through the regular means of marital conception, but by an miracle of grace by the Holy Spirit. (70). To conclude, it is worth citing Barth at length here:

[The Virgin Birth] is a pointer to the mystery God’s grace is to be seen in the fact that it takes place in Mary, God’s freedom, in the fact that it is creation….By God’s entering as Creator at a point where we expect to hear of the act of marriage of man and wife, manifestly just because the event of revelation affects man in the highest degree, man is in a definite way excluded from co-operation in this event. It is no doubt right to explain this as meaning that sinful man is here to be excluded. But the sinful element that has here to be excluded will in that case not have to be sought in the act of marriage or in sexual life as such, but in the sovereignty of human will and power and activity generally and as such. In this sovereignty man is not free for God’s Word. He is that, therefore, only when this sovereignty is excluded. He is that, therefore, only when there is excluded  that which–be it noted, not arising from Creation, but from the Fall–distinguishes or characterises the male as bearer of humanitv. Therefore the object of revelation is woman; therefore—ex Maria virgine. That does not mean any apotheosis of woman. Woman, too, shares in that sovereignty of man, that is excluded by the judgment of grace. Even Mary can only be blessed, because she has believed (Luke i. 45), not on the score of her virginity, not on the score of her femininity. But without desert on her part, she was chosen in her femininity, in what makes a relative distinction between her and the male, to be a sign of what, in spite of and in his sin, man can be and do, if and when God concerns Himself with him: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy Word ” (Luke i. 38). When his sovereignty is excluded, he is able to believe in the Word of God. It is in this way and in this sense that Mary becomes the mother of the Lord, Who has only an eternal Father (71-2).

[One question: Does anyone get exactly what Barth means by the statement that the male as bearer of humanity is a characteristic that arises from the Fall, and not from Creation? I take it to mean that Barth is saying that the male cannot hear, in freedom, the Word of God when he is asserting his sovereignty over creation rather than acknowledging that he, too, is created by God. But I’m not sure I quite get it. Any thoughts?]

Barth – Credo – “Creator of Heaven and Earth”

The confession of belief in God as “Creator of Heaven and Earth” (Latin: Creatorem coeli et terrae) is not meant to be a statement of a Christian “world view,” Karl Barth argues. Rather, it is a statement about God, and most specifically, about God’s relation to us and our world. The doctrine of God as creator captures the belief that were it not for the Father Almighty, we would not exist. Therefore, we are “completely and absolutely bound” (29) to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the doctrine of Creation has traditionally placed “man” at the centre of the creation account, as if humanity were to be understood as “the creature and the partner of God” (30). Yet the creed is strangely silent here about the creation of the humans. Why is this the case? As Barth puts it:

Will [man] recognize, fear and love God as God the Creator, without at the same time recognizing, as he looks down to earth and up to heaven, his own littleness and insignificance, both in body and soul, even within the creaturely sphere? Without indeed mentioning man, and significant in its failure to mention man, the statement that God created heaven and earth says the decisive thing even about him, and precisely about him. Of these two worlds he is the citizen, encompassed in truth with a special mystery, or the wanderer between these two worlds which indeed in God’s sight are only one world, the created world. (30)

[In other words, the absence of a statement about “humanity” in the first article is not a fatal omission, but an implicit setting of humanity into unity both with the rest of creation and with God the Creator. Humans are both included in “heavens and earth” as “created,”–“Not-God”–and also as possessed and owned by God.]

There is, Barth says, a “double content” arising out of the statement, “God is the Creator of the World”:

  1. God is related to the world, not in a manner of equilibrium or parity, but one in which God has absolute primacy over it in freedom. “Heaven and earth are not themselves God, are not anything in the nature of a divine generation or emanation, are not, as the Gnostics or mystics would again and again have it, in some direct or indirect way, identical with the Son or Word of God” (31). The world is characterized as: not God, not eternal, not a movement of God himself. [It’s hard not to hear the dialectical echoes of Römerbrief here!] Rather, the world is a “free opus ad extra, finding its necessity only in His love, but again not casting any doubt on His self-sufficiency: the world cannot exist without God, . . . but He could exist very well without the world” (31-2). Therefore, Barth insists, the meaning and end of the world “is not to be sought in itself.” Rather, “We must believe that the world as he created it is appointed to serve His glory, and we must not allow ourselves to be misled here by our feelings and reflections over good and evil, however justified” (32-3).
  2. Though there is an asymmetrical relationship between God and the world, the world nevertheless has a reality of its own, willed and upheld by God. That is to say, the world is both dependent God for its existence and yet has a relative independence given it by God. Simultaneously, the world stands bound to God who is its Creator, and yet never does the world become a “part” of God; never does the world and God fuse together: “God never and nowhere becomes the world” (34).

    This raises the question of the doctrine of Providence. How does God remain both sovereign over the world as its Lord, and yet allow the world its “relative independence”? Barth rejects the “Pelagian doctrine of freedom, the fatalistic doctrine of necessity, the indeterminism of the old Lutherans and Molinists and the determinism of Zwingli” because they represent “misreadings” of the doctrine of the human freedom of the will (35). He is more comfortable [not surprisingly] with Calvin’s answer in this regard, which allows a degree of human freedom, but not in such a way that it sets it alongside the “freedom of God” as if human freedom was a “god alongside of God” (35).

Barth concludes this chapter by describing what he sees as two limits of the doctrine of Creation.

  1. There are some questions of  faith that are not to be answered from the perspective of the doctrine of Creation, “as least not unequivocally and completely” (36). Barth includes the questions of sin, evil, death, and the Devil as “impossible possibilities” that cannot be explained from the perspective of God as Lord and Creator; “it cannot be said that God willed and created these possibilities as such” (36). Barth insists, “Dogmatics must not at this place carry the Creation-thought right to the end of the line. It must rather explain these possibilities as being such that we have indeed to reckon most definitely with their reality, but are unable better to describe their real nature and character. . . . These possibilities are to be taken seriously as the mysterium iniquitatis [“mystery of uneveness or injustice”]. The existence of such a thing, however, is not to be perceived from creation, but only from the grace of God in Jesus Christ” (37).

    [Aha! Barth finally returns to the question of the “chief problems of Dogmatics” and makes a bold pronouncement: You cannot answer the question (at least not satisfactorily) of why sin, evil, death and devil exist on the basis of a doctrine of Creation or providence. Yet, this has precisely where the bulk of systematic theology seems regularly to go! What is surprising, of course, is that Barth does deal with his famous doctrine of “Nothingness” in §50 entitled, “God and Nothingness” in the third part volume of his doctrine of Creation, written some 15 years after Credo (1950). An interesting question is: Is this a departure of Barth’s against his own good advice?]

  2. There are also some answers to the faith that should not be sought within the framework of the doctrine of God as Creator. These include the doctrines of miracles, prayer, the Incarnation, and the Church. Barth is insistent that it is inappropriate to develop these doctrines as an extension to the doctrine of God as Creator. This is because they are “very special forms of divine immanence in the world” (38). Here Barth’s argument is worth hearing in full:

These things [miracles, prayer, etc.] pass beyond our range of vision because they are all bound up with the central mystery of the Incarnation, which is most assuredly misunderstood if with Schleiermacher it is understood as the completion and crown of creation. It is not that in Christ creation has reached its goal, but that in Christ the Creator has become–and this is something different–Himself creature; the creature has been assumed into unity with the Creator as first-fruits of a new creation. Projecting our thought ‘consequently’ along the ling of the creation dogma, we should have in one way or another to deny the Incarnation, Miracle, prayer, the Church.  . . . In truth it is just in the knowledge of Jesus Christ that we stand at the source of the creation, faith and dogma. (38)

[Barth’s christocentric method come to the fore in this chapter. As for me, I find his argument quite convincing: prayer, miracles and even the Church are special forms of divine immanence that cannot be understood in terms either in light of God as Creator, nor even in a doctrine of providence, but only in light of Incarnation. Though I can’t even begin to spell the implications of this out in full, let’s take “prayer” as an example. The prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, of course, begins with “Our Father.” But such a prayer is a strictly novel in the Jewish context of his day, not an extension of the doctrine that God is Creator (even though God as Father in the OT does sometimes stand in as a shorthand expression for “God is the Creator). On the contrary, our ability to know what is “meant” by saying, “Our Father” can only be discerned in and through the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, in whose name we pray. Prayer, in other words, to God is not possible just because God is the one who created all things–a deist theology of God as creator has no real room for prayer because God is “absent” and “removed;” rather, prayer is possible to the Father only in light of the fact that Jesus is His Son in the flesh. Overall, a fascinating chapter!]

Novelists and theologians

For the Flannery O’Connor fans in our midst, there is a new online article about her over at The Atlantic. It’s worth checking out, especially the last half.

I loved O’Connor’s observation about the challenge a Christian novelist faces: 

[T]he novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

In other words, sin and brokenness will only be seen as such when pushed to the limits of their inherent absurdity. After all, sin and brokeness are essentially irrational and ugly, going against the grain of God’s rational and beautiful creation of shalom. In this regard, O’Connor’s genius is found in her ability to portray sin, which is so “normal” to us, in ways that we see it in all its ugliness, irrationality and abnormality. (By the way, I think this is also what makes The Simpsons, at least the earlier seasons, work so well–the show managed to unveil the truth about many of our modern day sacred and secular ideological cows for what they were–silly, absurd, and irrational…but I digress!)

Furthermore, O’Neill, the author of the article, suggests that what made O’Connor “so wickedly good” was her ability to help readers see sin and brokenness as absurd against the presence and reality of God’s involvement in the world. But this aptitude was due precisely to what I would call O’Connor’s “mystagogical realism.” As O’Neill puts it,

O’Connor declared her-self a realist, albeit one pushing “toward the limits of mystery.” Mystery, in her mind, was concerned with “the ultimate reaches of reality,” which is to say, the agency of the divine in human affairs.  

In some respects, the theologian has a similar problem to the novelist, though he faces it in the inverse. For a theologian, contrary to the O’Connorian type of novelist, has the task of being a “mystagogue” (i.e., a purveyor of mystery) who pushes divine mystery toward the limits of rationality. That is to say, the theologian must be constantly aware that there is no true mystery which finally leaves rationality behind. As GK Chesterton so ably, aptly and astutely explained it,

Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.  [From GKC’s article entitled, Mystagogue]

 So, taking a cue from O’Connor’s observation’s about the challenges for the Christian novelist, I suggest the challenge for the theologian is this:

The theologian with worldly concerns will find in God’s self-revelation perfections which are self-evidently captivating to him, and his problem will be to make these divine perfections appear concretely captivating and real to an audience which is used to seeing them as utterly abstract, unnatural, and unreal.

In other words, conversely to the O’Connorian novelist who is compelled to witness to the mystery present in the outer reaches of reality, the Christian theologian is compelled to witness to the reality of the inward reach of mystery–the mystery which is none other than the wholly other God made real flesh to us in Jesus Christ.

the metamorphosis and Incarnation

I just finished reading Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis. I’ve had it on my shelf for some time, but finally read it this weekend. (It doesn’t take long–it’s only about 60 pages long).  Warning: plot summary ahead, so if you haven’t read the novel yet and don’t want it spoiled, I suggest you read it online here first.

The opening line of the story is indicative of Kafka’s idiosyncratic style: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself  changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” From there, there’s not a whole lot more to the story’s plot development or even changes of setting. In fact, the whole story takes place in Gregor’s family’s apartment and consists of nothing more than a painful recounting of how Gregor’s father, mother and younger sister, Grete, have to learn to deal with this “unfortunate” turn of events.

Not surprisingly, initially everyone is shocked and traumatized to see that Gregor has turned into a bug, though there is no investigation of why this happened or any attempt to find out if there is any way to reverse the change. In fact, it’s unsettling to see how fast the family turns from initial shock and revulsion to simply trying to figure out how to carry on as if nothing has happened!

Gregor’s transformation has earth-shattering implications for the family, especially since Gregor is the sole breadwinner. Yet, somehow the family “adapts” to the metamorphis, if you could call their constant “dis-ease” with Gregor’s presence “adapting,” despite all the awkwardness that comes with a big bug son/brother in the next room. They quickly turn to the family savings which Gregor himself has supplied and settle in for the long haul, without any apparent sense of gratitude or awareness that it was Gregor the vermin that had the foresight to set this “rainy day fund” aside in the first place. Much more sadly, though Gregor hopes and dreams for some semblance of a relationship with his sister who at least shows some initial mercy toward him, it is not long before all familial relationship to Gregor is practically severed, not least because of the family’s inability to hear what Gregor is saying, even though he is able to continue speaking and hearing them. Thus, through the remainder of the story, Gregor remains more or less confined to a corner in an increasingly crowded room (they keep moving things that are in their way into his room since he doesn’t need the room anymore anyways) as his family continued to find ways to cope with his presence. Not surprisingly, they increasingly treat him as  a pitiful but grotesque animal, with occasional “sacrifices” of  food left in his room and an occasional quick, but careless, cleaning of his room. The family, it seems, hopes that this is enough to keep things basically “normal.” Otherwise,  life goes on with the rest of the family finding jobs, along with bringing in three boarders to help pay the bills. Ironically, Gregor spends some of his days looking out his bedroom window at the hospital right across the street, yet neither he nor his family seems to think that perhaps they should seek advice or help there for their situation. Indeed, no one seems to have the presence of mind even to ask the question of how this extraordinary thing could have taken place in the first place.

To begin with,  Gregor’s transformation into a big dung beetle is a source of irritation to the other family members. But as the story progresses, his presence more and more becomes a source of bitterness and despair for all involved. Finally, Gregor’s presence becomes catastrophic for the family when one day the three boarders discover Gregor creeping out from his room (the family had managed to keep him hidden from their sight) as he was drawn to the sound of the violin played by his sister. Pandemonium erupts: the boarders threaten legal action and father counter-threatens to throw them out. However, all is settled when, one day, Gregor’s beetle-like body is found by the cleaning lady–dead. Though Gregor had been a loyal son, a hard-working employee, and a loving brother who had supplied all the family needs, his death brings no mourning, but only great relief. It is as it is only by his death that the three, father, mother and Grete, finally are “saved” from their perpetual awkwardness. Upon being discovered dead, Gregor’s father simply proclaims, “Well, now we can thank God!” It is then, and only then, that Mr Samsa summons the courage to fire the troublesome housekeeper, evict the boarders, and find enough energy (he is pictured as sleeping for most of the novel) to take his wife and daughter for a trip into the country side. The novel’s last lines end with Mr and Mrs Samsa marvelling at their young daughter, “communicating almost unconsciously through glances, . . . that it would soon be time, too, to find her a good husband. And it was like a confirmation of their dreams and good intentions when at the end of their [trolley] ride their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.” Tragically, it is as if it is only through the final forgetting of the hideous son Gregor that they are finally set free to live life with joy themselves.

As with most Kafka stories, there are numerous lines of interpretation begging to be explored. But I was struck by the parallels between the Gregor’s metamorphosis and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Of course, there is a clear contrast between the two: in Gregor’s case, the metamorphosis involved a man being transformed into something clearly and wholly other than man, even while retaining his essential humanity,while in the incarnation God is transformed into a man, even while retaining his essence as divine. But beyond these inverted images,  I see a parallel between how the family reacts to Gregor’s metamorphosis and how humanity has historically reacted to the incarnation. Though the extraordinary miracle of God becoming human in Jesus Christ has actually happened, like Gregor’s family, the human family finds such a happening, well, frankly, irritating. (I think of Herod here who hears of the birth of the annointed child and reacts out of fierce irritation).  And in some respects, a good portion of the history of humanity since Christ’s coming  has been a history of trying to “adapt” to this irritating fact of the Incarnation while trying to do everything in our power to resist having to change anything in our comfortable lives. Put another way, though the Incarnation has happened, we humans have tried our best to try not to allow it to disrupt or disturb us too seriously. Perhaps we can pretend it never happened, or simply see it as a bad dream or out-of-date myth. Or perhaps we can respectfully theologize it to the point where its extraordinariness is no longer quite so extraordinary. Like Gregor’s family,  we have “tried our darndest” to go on living as if the Grand Metamorphosis of God becoming man never happened.

Again the contrast between Gregor’s metamorphosis and the Son of God’s incarnation is vitally important because, after all, it is frankly so much easier to deal with man becoming a “a god.” Indeed, this is so easy that we have a tendency to do this over and over again (Cf. Rom 1:25). We’re happy to promote even our peers to godlike status, whether moviestars, sports stars, politicians, or even friends and family.  But for God to become man? This is just so inconvenient for us. For it means that no longer can we keep God locked up neatly in “heaven,”  (cf. the room where Gregor’s family kept him locked up) while we can keep on living our “normal lives” here on earth. Instead, we  have this “irritating” reminder (especially at Christmas time!) that not only has God refused to remain splendidly isolated from us in glory, but that he has come and dwelt among us in flesh (John 1:14). He came as Immanuel (Matt 1:23) and now promises to be with us, even until the end of the age  (Matt 28:20). Yet we continue to live in darkness, even though this great light has dawned upon us.

Where The Metamorphosis ends, however, is not where the Christian story ends. Even though it is only upon Gregor’s death that Grete’s young body can finally be stretched out for the first time in her existence, her “resurrection” must be judged to be a farce; for all that she has gained is what she and her family secretly desired from the start: freedom from the irritating presence of Gregor. How quickly they forgot how much he had supplied for them! How quickly they forget that his payments kept the debtors away! How quickly they forget that it was he who stowed up savings for the future! How quickly they forgot that he was–one with them in blood! But of course, such “forgetful freedom” is no freedom at all, but biblically, the illusory fallen life which is only death and decay. And in many respects, that is what the Fall represents for us–a “forgetful freedom” of  “independence” from God. The Fall represents forgetting God and getting what we want–forgetting that God, from the beginning, walks with us, and getting the fruit of what we want as if God hadn’t supplied our needs from the beginning. And in the depravity of our thinking, we even begin thinking we are better off without him.

Fortunately, our God has not only metamorphosized into a living man who dies, but is transfigured, transformed, and exalted through his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. And because of this “metamorphosis,” we, too, live in hope of that day when our bodies, though inevitably to become a carcass like Gregor’s, will be “stretched out” anew when our Lord returns.