Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The King as a Pauper: The Beauty of the Incarnation

I am an unashamed Shakespeare nerd. I know Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” and Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquies by heart and quote them often. One of my favorite scenes in any Shakespeare play comes from Henry V, a historical epic chronicling the titular English king’s campaign to take The Kingdom of France during the Hundred Years’ War. Specifically, it focuses on the Battle of Agincourt.

On the Eve of the Battle

Before the battle, victory seems uncertain. According to Shakespeare, the French outnumber the English five to one. On that dark night, when morale is at its lowest, the kings dons a disguise and walks among his troops to understand their struggles and concerns for the coming day. The next morning, before the battle, Henry rouses his troops with what may be the most inspirational speech ever penned by the Bard, The Saint Crispin’s Day Speech! If you haven’t ever heard it, listen to a rendition here.

While the speech is inspiring and brings chills to me every time I listen to it, it is not the scene I was referring to. My favorite scene in Henry V is the night before, when the king is among his men. It is in this scene that you see his heart for his people and, in another moving speech, the hardship of his position as their leader. It took a great Shakespearian actor to highlight for me the significance of this scene for me in a franchise that addresses as many deep topics as Shakespeare and is, arguably, just as culturally impactful. I am speaking of Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed by Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart.

In the opening scene of an episode, Data, the starship’s android science officer, is trying to understand the human condition by studying Shakespeare. He performs a portion of that scene from Henry V as Captain Picard looks on. 

The two men then discuss the play:

Data: Captain, why should a king wish to pass as a commoner? If he is the leader, should he not be leading?

Picard: Listen to what Shakespeare is telling you about the man, Data. A king who had a true feeling for his soldiers would wish to share their fears with them on the eve of battle. 

Henry V was able to understand and encourage his troops because he took the time to pass among them as a commoner. It was the knowledge of their struggles and fears that enabled him to inspire them with his Saint Crispin’s Day Speech.

The King Among Commoners

But Henry V is not the only king to walk among his people as one of them. One of the most beautiful things about the Christian Gospel is the Incarnation. The Incarnation is a theological term meaning the manifestation of God in flesh. More simply, God came down to the earth as Jesus Christ in human form. God became flesh.

While this may seem like a simplistic concept, it has far-reaching implications. Most importantly, it enabled God to die on the cross, receiving the punishment for every sin ever committed or will be committed in the history and future of mankind. But the Incarnation goes farther than mere salvation. God could have, conceivably, found some other way to save humanity but He, in His wisdom, chose to become a human. This means the Creator of the universe experienced every aspect of what it meant to be one of us.

God grew hungry. God felt exhaustion and thirst. What I find more remarkable is the fact that God felt emotional pain. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, doesn’t appear in scriptures after Jesus’ twelfth birthday. There is reason to believe that Joseph died sometime before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry at thirty. It is possible, if not definitive, that Jesus lost His earthly father at a young age.

What we can say with certainty is that Jesus lost two close friends while He was on this earth. One of these two was John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and closest friend. I reflected on the context of this event in my article Divine Compassion. The second was Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha and a friend of Jesus’. This death is unique because, though Lazarus died, he was resurrected by Christ a few days later. Although Jesus knew this, He still took time to grieve the loss of His friend. The God of the universe felt what it meant to grieve and feel an emotional loss.

When He was on this earth, God also experienced temptation. Hebrews 4:15 teaches that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sinning. This means that God was tempted to steal, cheat, lie, commit sexual immorality, lust, snap in anger, and every other sin we are tempted with on a daily basis. While He never succumbed to these temptations, the God of the universe knows how it feels to be tempted.

During the night before His crucifixion, Christ felt the betrayal from one of his followers, Judas. He experienced tremendous rejection as He was abandoned by His closest friends, rejected by His chosen people, and denied three times by one of His three closest disciples. On the Cross He experienced physical anguish, the mockery of cruel words, the punishment for the sins of the world and, perhaps most painfully, separation from His Father. Then God who created the universe felt the pain of physical death. Jesus suffered all of this for us.

Back to Shakespeare

Returning to Picard’s analysis of Henry V, a king who had a true feeling for his soldiers would wish to share their fears with them on the eve of battle. God knew that we are in the midst of a raging spiritual battle between the forces of good and evil. The bounty at stake is the souls of every person on earth. One of the reasons I believe God chose to save the world through the Incarnation was so He would understand, first hand, what we experience on this Earth. I can say with all confidence that God understands what you’re going through. He felt joy and sorrow, hunger and thirst, pain and delight, friendship and betrayal. Because God is a just King He chose to save the world in such a way that He would understand what it means to be human. His feeling goes beyond mere empathy (sharing the feelings of another) and cuts directly to sympathy (empathy combined with a mutual understanding resulting from shared feeling.)

Listen to what the Bible is telling you about the Man. A God who had true feeling for His people would wish to share their experiences with them on the eve of battle. Through the Incarnation, God personified his feeling for us. Through the cross, He displayed His love for us. Through the resurrection, he displayed his Deity and Lordship over us. Through His return, He will demonstrate His dominion over all of creation and leadership over us. Through all of these things, He has brought, is bringing, and will bring glory to His name.   

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