Each year Christmas rolls around, along with it comes the age old recurring posts about the true meaning of Christmas.For some, it is having to explain that contrary to some popular claims, Christmas is not a pagan holiday. Additionally, there are those who subtly remind us (as if in fact it were shocking news), that Jesus was not born on December 25th. Skeptics of the New Testament throw out the annual article reminding us why the infancy narratives are merely later developments of legendary flavour and have no bearing in history. And so on, and so on. It’s easy to get caught up in it all, and that’s not to deny the importance of these questions. However, we often forget, or at least, fail to focus our attention on a bigger story that the story of Christmas is telling. It is one of cosmic proportions. It is the story of Incarnation, “God becoming human”.
In the past year there has been plenty of room for doubt in the world and the events that have taken place. From our frame of human experience, the world can look as if it is buried beneath deep dark clouds of turmoil. But the story of the Incarnation is one that gives hope in the midst of despair. It reminds us that God has not left history to spiral into irreversible destruction.
This a reflection of the theme of divinity and incarnation, and what it means that God took on human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Here I say, what it means rather than merely what it meant, because the Incarnation’s cosmic significance is the centrepiece of God’s acting in the world. From the moment that God’s culminating act breaks loose into our space of human history, it can then no longer be a past event that withers away as something God merely did. It becomes a concrete reality. For the Incarnate one, is the Crucified one, and the Crucified One is the Exalted one.
Surprising and Yet Anticipated
Modern people have real trouble wrapping their minds around how God could become human. It is no wonder that philosophers and theologians debate over these profound questions. We tend to think that the ancients were different. But perhaps not so. No doubt this is what drove the earliest debates on Christology. Even pagan monotheists like the critic Celcus, struggled to understand what it is that Christians thought had happened in Jesus of Nazareth.
What is it that makes the Incarnation such an unbelievable feat? The key is in understanding God’s unsurpassable uniqueness. In second Temple Jewish thought, a way to depict God was to envisage him enthroned in the vast heights of heaven, spatially separated from mortals on earth. The early Christian claim of Incarnation might come as surprise, but not merely as a surprise but a shock. One that was, in the words of Paul, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
The Incarnation is then, something surprising. But it may be that the seeds of Incarnation are already there, laying dormant only to flower into full bloom with the Son’s entry into the world. The incarnation is anticipated and consistent with God’s redemptive acting. Here’s how.
The early chapters of Genesis depict God planting a garden. This is not any ordinary garden which one simply keeps on your property, but it is Eden. For the ancient reader it stands out because it is a sacred space where God chooses to dwell. God doesn’t spend his time alone here. He invites humans that he has made, to dwell with him in this sacred abode, a place where heaven and earth are completely unified. In the ancient world, temples were not merely some places to worship deities, but they were where the gods dwelt. In Eden God comes to dwell with humans. Eden is a temple. It was always God’s plan to dwell with humanity.
Even after the things go sour and humans forfeit this chance, God pursues them even further. His plan is to dwell with them. Exodus tells the narrative of Yahweh redeeming Israel, and instructing them to build a sacred dwelling space so he can live among them. God instructs Solomon to build a temple so that God can dwell with humankind but time and time again, humans make a mess of things, and yet God’s goal remains the same. This motif of temple and divine dwelling anticipates the surprise of the Incarnation. It is in this light that John can say that, the “Word dwelt among us.” How? By becoming human and residing in our flesh and blood reality, fully partaking in it. The Word becomes flesh.
Not to Be Used for His Own Advantage
The sober truth of humanity is that we are ‘made from dust.’ This is a metaphorical way of speaking of our fragility and mortality. We are created and transient. Yet this aside, we are capable of immense feats and monumental accomplishments. From our place in the dirt we look to the stars to take our place among them. We grasp at power and status, but not for some noble cause. We grasp for exploitation and selfish gain.
In the ancient world, a common way to conceive of deities or heavenly beings was to understand them as celestial bodies. The sheer brilliance and heavenly luminescence of the sun, moon and stars is at least prima facie, one obvious reason to see deities in terms of celestial bodies. They are also seated high above in the heavens. The human pursuit however is not mere worship of those who reside in the heavens, but to take their place among them. It is no surprise then that humans throughout history seize at the chance to become gods. This manifests itself in ruler cults throughout the ancient world where kings or emperors were regarded as divine or the embodiment of a deity. Most common perhaps was in ancient Rome where an emperor might be declared a god at his death through deification or even declared a god in his lifetime. Being a god of course, meant that he ought to receive worship.This was on account of exalted status and immense power. The drive for self-divinity is one that arises and culminates from self-seeking desire and ambition. To dominate those below and in the words of Jesus “to lord it over them.” It is the Incarnation that critiques and brings down the human drive for self-deification. Not only this, but it also critiques these false forms of divinity that manifests in oppressive power and perpetuated violence.
One of the earliest Christian texts is preserved for us in Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This text is an early Christian hymn which captures for us the christology of the early Jesus movement. It says that Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” Then it continues with a surprising twist, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men…”
Jesus, pre-existed holding equality with God, yet divinity did not constitute something to be exploited for selfish gain and accrual of power to dominate sinful humanity. Jesus acts in embodying his divine character by emptying himself taking on the form of humanity. True divinity is expressed in selfless love. It was in true divine character that Christ takes the form of a slave and takes his place among those in the dust, for the fragile, the mortal and the broken. It is here that we can understand the Isaianic language to describe the kenotic act of Christ “he poured out his life unto death” as the full expression of Incarnation and complete undoing of false divinity.
The Incarnation shatters all false forms of divinity that acclaim status and oppressive power, and reveals the nature of true divinity. For it was God who moved towards humanity showing their hopes for self-deification for what they truly were. But to those who received him “he gave the right to become children of God.”
God Made Visible
One of the most perplexing realities of the human story is perhaps the seeming absence of God. No doubt this is one of the most common objections to Christian theism. While not only mounted as a reason to be skeptical that God exists, many Christians I suspect deeply struggle with this. It is this fact that often puts one in the position of a painful epistemic angst. Why is God so distant? Why is God so absent amidst the pain and suffering of real life? You shudder at the thought.. Perhaps it is because he is not there.
It is easy to affirm propositions in the midst of doubt and deep isolation, but it is another to know them. It is another to believe them. It can seem as if, at the end of the day, that we are truly left to the limits of our material existence. Caught in the shadows of our doubt, we may think we are no more than cosmic orphans left to the blind forces of the universe.
There are plenty of myths in which Gods take on human form and appear to humans. Rarely however do these claim to have any historical bearing. They are stories, and nothing more than that.
The Incarnation tears the curtain open so to speak, for the Incarnation means God visible. God lays claim to time and space in a flesh and blood history. He does not merely take on the appearance of humans, but unites himself to human nature, body and soul. And so Athanasius can say “he entered into the world in a new way, stooping to our level in his love and self-revealing to us.” Jesus, the Son crosses through the dark shadow of our alienation and comes to have visible fellowship with us. The author of 1 John describes the reality of the Incarnation as that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.” God with us, is God visible. The crucifixion of Jesus then is by no means at odds with God taking on human flesh. It is a full and direct expression of God visible, for he plunges down the depths of human predicament. He hangs in solidarity with broken humanity. His suffering and death is the visible demonstration of the depths of God’s love for humanity.
Becoming Human Through the Incarnate God
We often like to think that the greatest problem that exists our enemy, our flesh and blood foe. This is true, but not in the immediate sense. Self deceived, we rarely wish to admit that deep within us, our nature is at its root, corrupted . The enemy is within us. As mentioned in the previous section, our desires are self seeking and gravitate towards exploiting others for our own gain.
Sometimes people make awful decisions and yet we are able to extend some sympathy by saying “they’re just human!” And yet when we read a story of someone who has committed some heinous and grisly crime we see it as utterly dehumanizing and sub-human. Within all of us we know what it is to be truly human, but the condition we find ourselves in is one that has, we might say, been dehumanized.
The darkness runs deep within us. It may be tempting in face of the full recognition of such reality to recoil in horror and believe that the only redemption to such creatures would be abandonment.
In the Incarnation God moves toward humanity and through taking on human nature it is the very act of the remaking of humanity. It is through taking on human nature, that Christ completely renews human nature by expressing the full and true capacity of human nature. God shows us what it is to be truly human in the Incarnation. Instead of self-deception, greed, unfaithfulness, malicious anger, cowardice, coercion and violence, Christ demonstrates his full humanity through generosity, fidelity, compassion, self-control, culminating in unsurpassed selfless love. Where death and sin have ruined human nature and birthed twisted acts, the Son of God heals the wounded and maimed. He extends compassion to the outcast leper. He drives out the demons of those enslaved by evil. It is the remaking of humanity in the face of the tyranny of evil. Often we isolate redemption merely to the death of Jesus, implying that gospel stories are just filler for a more interesting narrative. But the life of the Son of God is the heart beat of his renewal of humanity. And if to be truly human is to perfectly love God and neighbour, then self sacrificial death is to be truly human, undivided from his life. It is the recreation of the Image.
But why through the Incarnation? Saint Athanasius here contends that:
“Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreated man made after the Image.”
For Athanasius we are renewed by Christ “the Image of the Invisible God,” to be transformed into his Image, from death to life. This was enacted and fully realized through the historical reality of the Incarnation. For Paul, it is through participation in Christ, the Incarnate One that our nature is renewed. Through participation in faith, we begin to reflect bit by bit the Image. Through Jesus, we become a new humanity.
More Than a Theology
What is taken into consideration throughout these four interconnected themes is the orthodox understanding of the person of Jesus. It shows that this foundational tenet of Christianity celebrated by Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox is not something merely to be left to dusty academic libraries or the ivory towers of theologians and philosophers. It is something that changes the history of the world.
The Incarnation is a reality that gives hope. It is one that has waited in the narratives woven together in the Old Testament. It is one that reveals to us the true nature of God, who expresses true power in weakness. It is one, that when we are left to shadows of doubt, declares the visible God in Jesus. It is one that says God has taken on human nature to renew and remake it.
If you are reading this, perhaps you may find yourself in the shadows, wondering if the world will be left in darkness. Perhaps you wonder if God has left the world. Perhaps the ‘gods of this age’ will triumph. But in what can seem like a vast darkness, there is a flicker of light. For in the Incarnation “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and the ones who sit in the land and shadow of death, a light has dawned on them.” The story of the Incarnation is the story of Emmanuel. It is the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, one who seemed as though an insignificant prophet in the back roads of a vast empire. He was a king, who had taken the form of a servant, not in spite of being a king but because he was a true king. He was truly God who had taken on flesh. He is the Incarnate one, and therefore the Crucified One. It is because of this, that he is also the Exalted One. The story of the Incarnation is one of glory clothed in humility, and triumph through servanthood.
 Bird, Michael. The Eternal Son 61. Eerdmans
 Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and The God of Israel164. Eerdmans
 Hurtado, Larry. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? 82-85. Eerdmans
 Philippians 2:5-6
 John 1:12
 Athanasius. On the Incarnation 21.
 1 John 1:1
 Athanasius. On the Incarnation 29.
 Colossians 1:15
 Isaiah 9:1; Matthew 4:16
 Philippians 2:9-11