24 December 2011

Honoring the Birth of the Second Adam

Written by 

A merry Christmas to all my fellow Christians, and to my Muslim friends a blessed celebration of the birth of Isa bnu Mariam, prophet of God!! Though Jesus can divide us, at Christmas he unites us!

In the gospel of Luke we read,

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

In the Sura Al ‘Imran (Q. 3:45) we read,

Behold! The angels said: “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.”

Please note that Mary is the only woman whose name appears in the Qur’an, and many more times than in the New Testament (34 versus 19 times). By any account, she is highly honored!

The birth of her son Jesus was like no other human birth, since there was no human father involved. In Matthew’s gospel an angel appears to a very confused (and likely very angry) mwo4meph in a dream. He had just found out that the woman to whom he was betrothed was now pregnant. So the angel’s message was this:

“mwo4meph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:20, 21).

Matthew then adds,

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”

In both Qur’an and Bible the modality of the virgin birth is the same: Mary conceives by the power of God’s Spirit. In Luke the angel says to Mary,

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (1:35).

In Surat Tahrim, we read,

And Mary the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of our Spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of his Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants)” (Q. 66:12).

Another element is added in the sura named after Mary, in which we read a very similar dialogue to the one that takes place in Matthew and Luke:

She said: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”

He said: “So (it will be): thy Lord saith, ‘That is easy for Me: and (We Wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us.’ It is a matter (So) decreed” (Q. 19:20, 21).

That new element is this matter of the divine decree that Muslim commentators connect to Jesus’ title as “the Word of God”. Surat Al ‘Imran makes it even more explicit:

[The angel] said: “Even so: God createth what he willeth, when he hath decreed a Plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be!’ and it is” (Q. 3:47).

Then, a few verses later we read how creation by decree unites Jesus and Adam:

The similitude of Jesus before God is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then he said to him: “Be”; and he was” (Q. 3:59).

Jesus and Adam are also connected by the action of God’s Spirit, with Jesus given the title of “a spirit from God” (Q. 4:171). Speaking of Adam, God addresses the angels in the following terms:

“When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down I obeisance unto him.” So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together (Q. 38:72, 73).

The New Testament takes this idea of Jesus and Adam’s link much further. Whereas the Qur’an sees this Adam/Jesus link reinforcing Jesus’ humanity, the Apostle Paul sees it as a parallel with a contrast:

The Scriptures tell us,

“The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam – that is, Christ – is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is a natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven” (I Cor. 45-47).

This thought comes within a larger section in which Paul seeks to set the Corinthian believers straight – at least those who were doubting the resurrection of the dead. For him the resurrection of Jesus, the second Adam, is what seals his calling to redeem all of humanity from the sting of sin and death. The first Adam led humanity into evil and destruction. The man Jesus, having come from heaven as God’s Son, brings forth a new humanity delivered once and for all from the ancient curse:

“For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:56, 57).

Back to Christmas. Ten times Jesus is called “messenger” (rasul) in the Qur’an. In the Islamic tradition, messengers bring books sent from God. Hence, though we understand differently the implication of Jesus’ miraculous birth – incarnation in one case, and a book in the other, we can certainly celebrate together God’s gracious gift – sending Jesus as his messenger to earth with a book, the Gospel, “wherein is guidance and light” (Q. 5:46). After all, that is where the story of Christmas comes from!