The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:23-24)
Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. (John 13:31)
The words of Christ leading to the Cross may seem out of place for a Christmas reflection. After all, don’t they belong with Holy Week? But the verses above have shown me something about Christ’s glory that has helped me understand “The Son of Man” and, in turn, what the Incarnation means.
The Problem of the “Son of Man”
For years I have puzzled over Jesus’s use of the phrase “Son of Man” — and not just in John 12 and 13. Yes, I’m familiar with Daniel 7:13-14. I’m willing to believe that Jesus claims to be the one to whom the “Ancient One” gives “dominion and glory and kingship.”
But “Son of Man” shows up over seventy times across the four Gospels. Can a single verse in the Hebrew scriptures explain the evangelists’ enthusiasm for the phrase?
Well, maybe. The Church has made much of John 3:16 in the last century. More recently, we have seen Jeremiah 29:11 rise in popularity. In the same way, Daniel 7:13-14 might have been the “verse of the decade” in the Gospel-writers’ day.
But I wasn’t satisfied. For even if the time and place do give us some social-historical insight—or, put the other way round, even if the quoting of the Daniel verses gives us some insight into the Gospels’ social and historical circumstances — we can’t walk away from asking after the phrase’s implications.
For both Daniel and John, the “Son of Man” is the one glorified. Not someone else. Not, for instance, the “Son of God” — a title that would connect so nicely with divine glory. And this, for me, was the pesky problem. Why?
The Glory of Christ
To answer that, I looked again to John. At least as far back as Fr. Raymond Brown (1970), scholars have divided John’s Gospel into the “Book of Signs” (chapters 1-12) and the “Book of Glory” (chapters 13-21). By this analysis, the events leading up to and including Jesus’s crucifixion, through all their horror and humiliation, reveal the glory of God. As Dale Bruner puts it:
[I]n John’s Gospel, Jesus’ Weekend events—his Death and Resurrection—are regularly spoken of as his glorification…In the dying and then rising of the Father’s obedient Son, the human race learns the depth and the height of the seeking Father’s missionary love for the world.
The Cross is at once both Christ’s lowest and highest point. His eternal sacrifice is his eternal coronation. His humiliation is his glory.
I was on the right track. But the answer still lay just out of reach. Until…
The Problem Resolved
The “Aha” came when my wife Karen introduced me to another translation. What if the phrase leaned less on Jesus’s masculinity and more on his humanity? Instead of “Son of Man,” she suggested the words “Human One.”
And with that, my cognitive carriage pulled out of its old mental ruts. Maybe it just heard the idea expressed a different way. Or maybe it heard the idea with a different emphasis. For whatever reason, that change unclogged my imagination.
And I found myself thinking: What if the expression’s primary reference point isn’t our human mouths and ears? Yes, Jesus may have been using the phrase to communicate something to his disciples. But what if he was also using the phrase to remind himself of who he was? What if “Human One” had a heavenly meaning?
The scene came to my mind’s eye. Imagine Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, the One who had chosen before the foundation of the world to be the Lamb-who-was-slain for our salvation. Imagine Christ walking the halls of heaven.
And imagine the heavenly beings, most of whom had never visited Earth, imagine them looking on in awe and wonder and perhaps a little fear. Imagine them whispering to each other as Christ passed, “That’s the one! That’s the Human One! I know, Gabriel’s visited. But that one became a human and died a horrible death because he loves them! Can you imagine?”
What if Jesus, as he spoke the words in John 12 and 13, did so to remind himself of the glory and joy that lay before him by way of the Cross, at least as much as to teach his disciples something about the ways of God? What if that, at least as much as the Daniel verses, tells us what it means that Christ was the Son of Man / the Human One?
We may treat the Incarnation and Atonement as separate doctrines. Perhaps we have to; our language makes us deal with one topic at a time.
But they do not stand apart from each other. They walk hand in hand. They are two facets of the same gemstone.
And they, in their respective ways, tell us the same word. The least is the greatest. The most humiliated is the most glorified. The poor, hungry, sad and hated are blessed.
So, I’d say, a Lenten passage looks pretty good at Christmastime. For the message of Christ’s abasement is true at Christmas just as it is in Holy Week. And behind both is the message of Christ’s glory.
And our glory too, as we take up his way and follow. May we together know and embrace the (utterly confounding) glory of the season.
Somewhere along the Way —
 “The Son of Man” appears at least twenty-five times each in Matthew and Luke, and over ten times each in Mark and John.
 It is true that “the Son of God may be glorified” shows up in the context of Lazarus’s healing. But unpacking that glorification, and how it is different from the glorification of the “Son of Man,” would exceed my task here—not to mention your willingness to read about it.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 792.
 Imagine, if the image helps, God as a limbo dancer. The lower the dancer goes, the more amazing the accomplishment. No one is celebrated more than the one who goes the lowest of all. No one in heaven or on earth is so worthy of praise as the one who dipped the deepest. See also Ephesians 4:9-10.