At first thought Bethlehem seems far from Calvary. That holy night of Christmas when “stars were brightly shining”—how different from the profane darkness of Black Friday that blinded the midday sun. Humble strangers came from nearby fields, wise and proud ones from faraway lands to adore the Christ-child; but bosom companions betrayed and abandoned the God-man. Between the innocent grace of an infant cradled in the arms of a peasant girl and the awesome grandeur of a mature man hung from the limbs of a Roman gibbet, crucified for sedition and heresy, there is stark and terrible contrast.

Yet more compelling than the contrast is the complementary meaning of the Crèche and the Cross. Eleanor Slater suggests this truth in a poem called “December Twenty-Fourth,” which concludes:

Tomorrow You are born again

Who died so many times.

Do You like the candle-light,

Do You like the chimes?

Do You stop to wonder

Why men never see

How very closely Bethlehem

Approaches Calvary?

On the map the two cities of David are close; Bethlehem is only six miles southwest of Jerusalem. Even on the calendar they are near for this princely son of David, a fleeting thirty years or so.

There is, however, a more profound likeness between these two events. They are complementary moments manifesting correlative aspects of the Christ Event. For one thing, both show estrangement and rejection, our rejection of God. Jesus’ birth and death, set within and for our history, occurred for that very reason at the edge of society, “outside the gate” (Heb. 13:12). “He came to his own home, and his people received him not” (John 1:11). Bethlehem is close to Calvary because humanity is far from God.

These two are also wondrously one in showing God’s acceptance of us, in our finitude as well as our iniquity. The “glad tidings of great joy” sung to humble shepherds surely proclaim to all that God accepts and affirms our common life in the world. The message to a Galilean girl that she would be the mother of the Son of God is surely sublime witness that the Heavenly Father takes to himself our finitude and creatureliness, our frailty and pain, our anxiety and loneliness. The Word became flesh through flesh. He who was “in the form of God” took “the form of a servant” and was “born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6, 7). God is as profoundly at home in humanity as we may be in him.

If God takes our humanity in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, he also accepts our hostility in the suffering and crucifixion of his anointed Son. Incarnation, emphasized by Eastern Christianity, must not be separated from Crucifixion, emphasized by Western Christianity as the Atonement. “Being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Beyond taking the creatureliness of God’s design, the gracious Servant of the Lord bore the wounds and grief of our iniquity (Isa. 53:4, 5). Holy love that would save others cannot spare itself. In our tragic history there is no alternative to the way of the Cross.

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That rough-hewn, blood-encrusted Cross sunk deep into Golgotha’s rocky brow bears everlasting witness that God has met and still meets us at the very depths of our degradation and despair. All the way down he came to where we are, to lift us to himself, that released we may become our truest selves. Scripture abounds with the faith language of resurrection, liberation, redemption, acquittal, healing, new birth, new creation—all in Christ! “Because he himself has suffered … he is able to help” (Heb. 2:18)!

Beyond these historic considerations, Bethlehem and Calvary include an awesome sequel for the Church in our time. Originating in and continuous with God’s mighty acts of grace in Jesus Christ are his ongoing mighty acts of grace in Christ’s new body, the Church. We are co-missioned to be the continuing medium of his presence in history. Incarnation and atonement, in some wondrous sense, are to go on being not merely commemorated but realized through the power of Christ’s resurrection in the faithful life of the Christian fellowship. How closely, then, all this is bound to Pentecost faith that God is still at hand and at work among us, and this through his new-covenant people under the Lordship of Christ.

What does it mean to confess a continuation of the Incarnation today? For one thing, so extraordinary a conviction—that Christians are really the body of Christ, the eternal Word’s enfleshment in today’s world—is humble acknowledgment that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7). All our liturgies and creeds, polities and programs are finite; the best we are is fragile flesh. But in and through these very vessels moves the treasure, Immanuel. Incarnation still means an enfleshing union that maintains both the presence and the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, to affirm an ongoing of the Incarnation is to accept the realm of creation, to witness in faith that this is our Father’s world. Such a conviction admittedly gives rise to no immediate and simple programs for coping with a host of complex problems. Yet creation faith can foster among us a life style of responsible stewardship within nature and culture. It can nurture compassionate work for the well-being of our fellow human beings in society. It can inspire creativity in the arts and sciences. Creation faith can cultivate integrity in business, education, and politics, fidelity and grace in romance and homemaking. Incarnation faith perceives all of these, not merely as self-interest or social duty, but as the faithful ministry of all believers in the name and by the Spirit of Christ. He is Lord of all, if he is Lord at all!

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But creation does not come to us whole and clean, untouched by guile and guilt and grief. Dare we also, then, confess a continuation of the Atonement today? If so, in what sense? The evangelical mind will faithfully resist any notion that the Church repeats the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist or Christian life, just as it resists the notion that the Ecclesia supplants an absent Lord. The fellowship of faith must likewise resist the beguiling notion that it is to share only in the resurrection power of Christ and not in his weakness, suffering, and death. To assume this is, in fact, to deny the need of his power. The post-Easter Church has a pre-Easter mission in a world not yet raised from the dead. It was as hard for the old Israel to accept a suffering Messiah as it is for the new Israel to accept its role as Suffering Servant of our Lord today. He who lets the Gethsemane cup pass without drinking concedes, “Not thy will but mine be done.”

New Testament faith is clear and consistent here. “Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me’ ” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet before going out to his night of sorrow was a dramatic parable of the Incarnation-Atonement. Having laid aside the towel and basin, he said unforgettably: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24) is surely more than a liturgical instruction; it has radically to do with the breaking and pouring-out of our lives.


On the seventh day God lay down to rest;

He closed his eyes and trusted man.

But man invented the camera

And began to photograph the world.

Lions froze midleap,

Roses bloomed in triple time,

And geographic wonders toppled through its lens

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To emerge pocket sized.

In short man learned tyranny

And with tyranny boredom.

His mind began to wander. It crossed in front

Of the lens. Absently, he clicked the shutter

And photographed a thought.

He clicked again. And again.

Capturing his thoughts. Developing a world.

God woke angry and roared in English.

Man snapped

And God was fixed forever 2 inches square.


Clearly the Apostle Paul thought so. He confessed to the Philippians: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things … that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:8b, 10). Paul saw his own afflictions as a matter of bearing in his body the marks of Jesus’ death so that the life of Jesus might also be manifested in him (2 Cor. 4:7–12). His life was consistent with his admonition: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5–8). The writer to the Hebrews also exhorted: “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the stigma that he bore” (Heb. 13:13, NEB).

What could so robust a challenge mean for us today? Understandably, the ways in which we perceive, express, and implement atonement faith in our time will vary widely. Nevertheless, while it derives from and is utterly dependent upon the grace of God in Christ, this faith will be as contemporary and concrete in our homes and cities, schools and shops, as it was in biblical Bethlehem and Nazareth, Jerusalem and Rome. Redeeming, reconciling faith will have something radically and costly to do with feeling the hurts and healing the wounds, forgiving the offenses and risking the wrath of people around us, as it did for our Master (e.g., Luke 10:25–37). There is no blessing without bleeding in this kind of world.

Martin Luther, in one of his last attempts at conciliation with Pope Leo X, published “The Freedom of a Christian” in 1520. Elaborating the meaning of Philippians 2:5–8, he expressed in telling words this kinship of Christ and Christians as the very meaning of our name: “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.” A contemporary namesake, Martin Luther King, who six years ago paid the supreme price of compassion, was especially fond of the gospel song that says, “If I can help somebody as I walk along, then my living will not be in vain.”

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Calvary faith for our day will mean “The Prayer of St. Francis” fleshed out, even bled out as need be, in the common life: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.” His prayer concludes with an awareness born of intimacy with Christ and his mission: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

The joy and power of Easter will be genuine only in the fellowship-in-mission of those who know in their heart of hearts, as their Master did, how very closely Bethlehem approaches Calvary. As John Byrom wrote in the hymn “Christians Awake”:

O may we keep and ponder in our mind

God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind:

Trace we the babe, Who hath retrieved our loss,

From his poor manger to his bitter cross;

Treading his steps, assisted by his grace,

Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place.

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