The Incarnation – a new medium?

Here is the letter I wrote for our parish magazines this month:

Dear friends,

We have heard a lot about “new media” or “social media” over the last few months, even years.  First there was e-mail – sending personal or business messages from one computer to another via the internet. Then there was phone texting, sending short messages via mobile telephones. Now we have “social networking” where messages, photos and even short video clips can be posted on internet sites such as Facebook or Twitter. What began as a college student’s attempt to provide a sort of electronic bulletin board for his fellow students has turned into a computerised social experience encompassing millions of people worldwide. The story of this development has even been told in the film The Social Network.

And with the development of a new generation of mobile phones, it is possible to connect with friends and family via these sites from almost anywhere.

There are good and bad aspects to this of course. There have been instances where information posted on social network sites has been used to commit crime, or where people have lost jobs because their bosses saw something that had been intended just for friends or family to see. Social networks can be an excuse not to engage with people in “real life,” as in a recent case where a company fired some of its employees by a text message. Some things are still better done face-to-face. But where used intelligently, social media can be a great way to keep in touch with people far away, and charities as well as businesses are finding the networks can be useful in connecting with people who may be interested in their products and causes.

Social networks are, of course, simply the latest example of changes in human communication. Earlier examples include the inventions of writing (where a philosopher bemoaned the fact that it would reduce people’s capacity to remember), printing, the telegraph, film and television. Each of these altered the way in which people thought and communicated, and subtly altered the messages they conveyed. Social media are no different.

But the Bible also records a change in medium to communicate a message. In the Old Testament, God spoke through special people, the prophets. Where these words were written down, they were transmitted through books of stories, poetry and laws. God was revealed as a God who wanted to communicate with people. In the New Testament, however, God “changed the medium.” No longer was his communication simply in the form of words, whether written or spoken. Instead, God chose to reveal himself in person, the person of Jesus. Instead of listening to, or reading, words, humans had the chance to see for themselves what God was like. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his followers at the Last Supper (John 14:9).

This is what Christians call “the Incarnation”, and the beginning is the familiar Christmas story of Jesus being born as a human baby in a stable in Bethlehem. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). But, of course, this is only the first chapter of the story. Jesus grew up, lived and taught and performed signs that God’s reign has already begun. He died a very human death and rose again to give us the hope of new life. And, since Pentecost, he lives through his people, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that WE are now part of this same story, part of God’s message to the world.

So this Christmas, let’s wonder again at the story of the God who communicates with us in person. Let’s remind ourselves not only of that first chapter, but also the rest of the story. And let’s remind ourselves of the part each of us is called to play in continuing to transit God’s message of love, peace, hope and redemption to the world.

I wish you all a very blessed and happy Christmas.