Incarnation Through Middle-Eastern Eyes image

Incarnation Through Middle-Eastern Eyes

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Our perspectives of Christmas are hugely shaped by cultural assumptions. For those of us in the West, our traditions are largely a very recent creation, only a century or so old. Prior to this, things we think of as essential to Christmas (present giving, Santa Claus, Christmas trees) did not even exist, yet they are now so ingrained we couldn't imagine Christmas without them. So it is helpful to get other cultural perspectives, and this, from a friend in a Muslim majority nation, is excellent.

When we first moved to the Middle East we heard from our language helpers that on festival days everyone dresses in their best clothes and goes to visit their relatives and neighbours to celebrate. So, for our first Eid festival we very carefully cleaned our apartment, dressed up in our best clothes, got some sweets and chocolates which are traditional to hand out to visitors and waited in our house. But no-one came to visit.

We asked our language helpers what we had done wrong. Laughing they explained “On festival days, the small visit the big, and the big give out presents”, for example everyone in a family visit their eldest brother, or their parents or grandparents. When they arrive they would kiss the hand of the older person to show respect and honour. The host would then make sure that their guests are well looked after, feed them, serve them, give them gifts such as good quality chocolate or sometimes money or other presents. Being newly arrived foreigners who didn’t speak the language and thus having no social standing or relatives, naturally no-one came to visit us. We are considered ‘small’ by the culture so we are the ones who need to do the visiting.

Reflecting on this over the Christmas season with some of my local believing friends I was struck again by the awesomeness of the incarnation we celebrate at this time. Whilst in every other religion, especially those prevalent in the Middle East, humans (the small) try to visit God by their own strength – ritual, moral purity and good works; the Christian God knew that this was impossible for us due to the barrier and stench of our sin; as much as we try to dress up nicely we cannot be clean enough to enter his house without polluting and disrespecting it.

In fact, another way of viewing the fall is that even if we were able to go to God’s house and honour him we would rather stay in our own house and not give away our honour - then we would have made ourselves ‘big’ and perhaps other people around would come and honour us. This is exactly what Satan does, stealing the honour and respect that is due to only the Creator God.

In the incarnation God decided to play the role both of the ‘small’ and of the ‘big’. As we couldn’t visit His house, and probably wouldn’t want to even if we could, He humbled himself totally to become ‘small’, so that he could visit us in our squalid house. But also as the ‘big’ He played the role of host and gave gifts – atonement, the Holy Spirit, and clean clothes – which means that as believers we are now appropriately dressed and thus free to enter His house without disrespecting it.

It is interesting to see that at His birth He was honoured by both the ‘big’ (wise men) and the ‘small’ (shepherds). They realised that even though the child should kiss the hand of the elder and the poor should kiss the hand of the rich, actually compared to this baby born in poverty and out of wedlock, all humanity was ‘small’. They counted it as an honour to be able to humble themselves and give honour to Him.

We were far, unreachable, without even the standing in His sight to be counted ‘small’. So knowing this and loving us in spite of it, He descended to visit us so that we may dwell with Him, enjoying His gifts and Presence.

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