Christmas: Is the word flesh or book?
THE Christmas story appears only in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew (Matt.1:18-24) and Luke (1:26-38) without contradictions. Together, they provide a more complete family tree for Jesus both on his legal father’s side and on his biological mother’s side. Both were descendants of King David (Matt.1:1-17; Lk.3: 23-38). The story of the birth of Jesus begins in the gospel of Luke with God sending the archangel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.
The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel said to her that she had found favour with God and that she would become pregnant and give birth to a child. She was told to call him Jesus, and that he would be great and inherit the throne of David. Astonished and confused, Mary said, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” The angel said, “The Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” In other words, she would become pregnant by the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
The version in the Gospel of Matthew is different. The angel of God, who remains unnamed in this version, appears to Joseph rather than Mary. Both Joseph and Mary were already engaged; he knew that she was pregnant and that he was not the father of the child. This is an embarrassing situation in any culture, but especially so in the Middle East, in ancient times as today. So what was Joseph to do? The angel told him that the baby was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah, and that he should go ahead with the wedding. Joseph agreed. But going back to the Gospel of Luke, Mary hurriedly travelled to the small town of Ain Karem to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She allegedly went to assist her cousin in childbirth, as she too, was pregnant- with John the Baptist. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married when they travelled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born (Luke 1:27).
The Qur’an is the third scriptural source of the Christmas story. Like the synoptic gospels do for each other, the story as told in the Qur’an complements the two gospel accounts and adds interesting details and insights. We should not expect the Qur’an to give as much space to the story of Jesus as does the gospels, not because Jesus (Isa’) is less important to Muslims, but rather because the gospels have already told the story. The Qur’an echoes some details of the story in confirmation, and adds other details. “It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).Q.3:3)
The Qur’an, like the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, tells the story of the annunciation in sura 19:16-22.
As in the Gospel of Matthew, the angel remains unnamed, although Muslim tradition assumes that it is Gabriel. Q 21:91 and Q. 66:12 both say, “We breathed into her of Our Spirit [Ruh]”. Following the Gospel of Luke rather than Mathew, the angel appears to Mary, rather than to Joseph. Joseph does not appear in the Christmas story at all in the Qur’an.
What is clear in all three versions of the story, though, is that this baby was conceived not in the normal way of intercourse with a man but through the intercession of God through the Holy Spirit in Christianity or “Our Spirit” (Ruhina) in Islam. All three scriptural accounts agree on this. Indeed, the Qur’an is so emphatic about Mary guarding her chastity that it says: “It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that he should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter, He only says to it ‘Be’ and it is”(Q.19:35).
Interpretations of the Event
Where Christians and Muslims will disagree on the virgin birth is why the concept is so important. For Muslims, the virgin birth is testimony to God’s infinite creative power. God can, and in this case did, create by a sheer act of will. He said, “Be”, and so it was ( kun fayakun). This was infact the second time , according to the Qur’an, that God created a man by a simple act of His will. The first time was when He created Adam without the intervention of a father or mother. It was simply an act of God’s creative will. Additionally for Muslims, the purity of Mary is of the highest importance. Since Jesus was a prophet unlike the others, the purity of his mother needed to be established.
The Importance of the Incarnation.
For the Christian, sin is the cause for the incarnation: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk.10:45). Both Muslims and Christians accept that sin produces an unfavourable state of ‘being’, one that we should be ashamed of, no less. “Sin is that which causes discomfort within your soul and which you dislike people to become informed of” (Sahih Muslim).
Muslims believe that God saves us through his divine word. The guide for salvation, the “agent” of salvation if you will, is the Word of God as revealed through the Qur’an (Az-Zumar. Q.39:17-18). Muslims believe that the Word of God became a book, (the Qur’an) which God sends as a guide for restoring the relationship. Jesus, as the Word of God, is a messenger, a sign, an image, a way to know the God revealed in scripture. Jesus transmitted the word of God like other prophets.
Christians, on the other hand believe that the Word became flesh (Man) and that Man is Jesus. Whatever else He may be, this Jesus is fully human and, at the same time, the visible image of God. He came to earth to save humanity. This is what Christians celebrate at Christmas: that God became Man and came to earth to save humanity, that Jesus is the Word of God, and that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
This is an event in human history affirmed in both Christianity and Islam though with different interpretations. It is an event that both communities can celebrate and apply in their relationships positively together.
Sir Ahmadu Bello (OBE), the Sardauna of Sokoto of blessed memory while responding to the suggestion that in relating together with another part of Nigeria with a different culture and religion said, “Let us understand our differences”.
The Word became flesh (Man) for the Christian, a Book (Qur’an) for the Muslim.
Most of the celebrations observed by these two religions are based on the same events but differently interpreted, with the culture of understanding both communities should be able to stand together against extremist views of their faiths and by so doing promote the culture of tolerance and understanding which are essentials for peace and peaceful coexistence. This unnecessary waste of human lives, displacements and instability in our world must stop; we must stand together as communities and challenge the abuse of our faith traditions.
The Most Rev. Josiah Idowu-Fearon (Ph.D) is Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, St Andrew’s House,