Incarnation: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Often, when I speak of incarnational theology, I’m met with a slightly blank look before being finally asked, “You mean Christmas…right?”.
The early Church was not big on the celebration of Christmas or, more properly, The Feast of the Nativity, but they were consumed with incarnational theology. For them, as for the author of the fourth gospel, the good news of the coming of Christ is not by a child born in Bethlehem, not by a makeshift cradle in an outbuilding, but in the remarkable language of the Word of God becoming flesh. The Word – in Greek the divine Logos – is God’s expression of himself. In the era of the Hebrew scriptures, God’s will and purpose was made known by his word which came to the prophets and which they, in turn, declared to God’s people. In the Hebrew scriptures the wisdom of God was seen as God’s agent in creation. In the Greek world, the divine Logos held the world together as an integrated system and provided its meaning, order and purpose. These two streams of thought, Hebrew and Greek, come together in the Word, which John’s gospel proclaims was “with God and was God”.
That the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” was the proclamation of new creation and a fundamental redemptive act planned in eternity past and executed in human history. It is wholly “other” yet it is wholly “of us”. This is the fundamental meaning of the virginal conception of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is expressed in a different manner in the opening of John’s gospel with the words, “In the beginning…”, echoing the opening words of the creation in the first chapter of Genesis. The God who is the origin of all things acts in a new way to redeem all things. The Word, God’s own communication and expression of his being, becomes flesh. “Becoming flesh”, incarnation, is the shocking center of Christian faith. It asserts the claim that in the fragility and contingency of a single human life the Creator knew his creation, not from the outside, but from the inside. “He dwelt among us.”
Moreover, he was among us not in some ethereal, spiritual manner, but as a particular person who bore all humanity in his nature. As the poet Coleridge wrote, “The Almighty goodness does not dwell in generalities or abide in abstractions”. It is the particularity of a human life, at a particular time and in a particular place that provides meaning for all times and all places. The story of Christ does not begin with “once upon a time”. It is the time of Caesar Augustus. It is the Roman province of Judea. It is Herod. It is an unremarkable military governor, Pontius Pilate. God gives himself not to some fantasy world, but to this world. In incarnation, literally “enfleshing”, God comes down to earth fro heaven. He comes over to our side. He identifies himself with a world that is both his creation and, yet, is estranged from him. It is a fallen world. It is a world of darkness and sin. It is a world of frailty. As someone once commented, part of the carnality of the incarnation is that God comes to the carnage.
God comes to where we are. To the world which is ISIS and the Taliban, to a world of tyranny both political and domestic, to a world of refugees and migrants, to the world of imprisoning addiction, to the human darkness of depression, loneliness and bereavement, to the hell of relationships where love is distorted into hatred, to the prisons of poverty, injustice and abuse, God comes to us as one of us. As Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Philippi, Christ who was “in the form of God emptied himself, and took upon himself the form of a servant and was made in human likeness”.
The incarnation tells us that God does not hold back. In the incarnation God reaches out in love, emptying himself that he might not just stand alongside us, but that we may be gathered in to his heart, the place where creation itself began. It is a love that considers and judges the sin of the world and our complicity in that sin and yet, at the same time, touches us in forgiveness, and redemption, and healing, if we would have it. In the incarnation, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overwhelm it”.
The truth of Christianity does not depend upon a system of apologetics, or a written corpus free from historical or scientific error, or textual variants. It does, however, depend upon the truth and implications of the incarnation. It depends upon a God that loves like this, not just as a metaphor or a way of speaking, but in reality. It is an affirmation that can be expressed in a moment and considered for a lifetime. It stretches our language to its limits, yet calls for worship and adoration when words fail.
The God who empties himself, the Word who becomes flesh, who takes on our nature, is a God of grace indeed. It is the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality. The early Church understood this and declared it as the ultimate truth and reality. Moreover, it made the claim that as the fullness of the love of God is shown in his self-emptying, so our human destiny is nothing less than sharing in his divine life. We are to “become by grace what Christ is by nature” and to be a part of that love which, “bears all things, endures all things, believes all things, and hopes all things”. We are invited to risk our lives on the truth of the incarnation – the truth of the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us.
So, no, it’s not just about Christmas… It’s about who and what we are because God came among us.