December 10th, 2021

What God did at Christmas. The enfleshment of God. Divine condescension to humanity through Mary’s womb. Transcendence upended by what happens in Jesus. The lengths God is willing to go to have us.

From the first, we watched Jesus do what humans do (hunger, bleed, grieve, rejoice) and also that which only God can do (forgiving sins or routing demons).

The first Christian martyr Stephen addresses his prayers not as he has been taught—to Yahweh—but to Jesus, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” speaking to Jesus just like Israel prayed to God. Jesus recognized as divine is not something that was added to Jesus by his overly enthusiastic followers, but there from the first, right after his resurrection and ascension.

The first commandment strictly prohibits making representations of Almighty God. But it’s okay if God wants to make an image of God.

The incarnation says in the flesh what the prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs tried to tell us: God doesn’t float over our chaos, pain, and sin, nor reside safely among our ancestors amid the dead. God personally wants to meet us not only here but also now. God risks relationship, dares to give Godself into human hands, becomes a body. No woozy mysticism, high-flown idealism, or fuzzy spiritualty adequately describes the God who not only invented flesh but also became our flesh.

Only God can save us. Only God has eternity. And yet, humanity can’t be fully redeemed if God is unwilling to assume full humanity. If Christ is only human, he is irrelevant to deepest human need and can’t be worshipped. If he is only God, then he is disconnected from human limitations and can’t be followed.

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Jesus is the key to God’s nature and intentions. Everything about God is embodied in him; Jesus is God both supremely and uniquely at work. Jesus doesn’t just make God visible but actively present. Jesus, the supreme instance of God’s agency. God is so determined to self-reveal that God gives us a human life who shows what God wants to happen, and who makes possible for us to want God. Around academia, on rare moments when God creeps into conversation, there’s always someone around to say, “God? Can’t say much for sure. God is large, distant, unknowable. It would be intellectually constricting and presumptuous to claim knowledge of God.”

We wish.

Jesus as fully God and fully human is a paradox, yes, but he is also a lovable person. Who warms to a paradox? When you love someone, you embrace that person’s wild oppositional complexity, seemingly paradoxical behavior makes you love your friend all the more. Jesus Christ seems paradoxical only to those who think God and humanity are mutually exclusive.

Sweet, well-meaning religious folk are forever trying to overspiritualize God, filling the faith with helium and floating it up toward never-never-land. In the incarnation, we learn that bodies matter; matter matters. Heaven and earth are interlocked, embraced. God doesn’t snatch us from this fallen creation, leaving the wretched world behind. The world, our world, is entered into, intertwined with God’s purposes.

Incarnation is best used as a noun rather than as an adjective or adverb. “Incarnational ministry” doesn’t say much; all humans are meaty. Incarnation means more than “Human existence is good and therefore ought to be embraced and improved” (people on top always think that). Incarnation is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly, and was God.

If you prefer your God to be with you as a remarkably effective moral teacher or a wise sage, Jesus is sure to discomfort. The domesticated Jesus whose strange, inexplicable mix of humanity and divinity has somehow been made simpler—either human or divine; hence easy for us to understand and to handle—is no Christ at all. The incarnation beckons us toward intellectual humility, a willingness to let God be at the same time mysteriously complicated, beyond the bounds of our full comprehension, and yet closer to us than we are to ourselves.

On the other hand, if you prefer your God shrouded in spiritual, inflated, pale blue, fuzzy vagueness, far removed from where you actually reside, irrelevant to who you really are, Jesus’s human nearness will be unnerving.

In its orthodox thinking about the incarnation, the church allowed God to stoop as low as God pleased and at the same time to exalt humanity as high as God wanted. But some tried to come up with simpler, less paradoxical, less demanding formulations for the God/Man Jesus:

Adoptionism: Jesus is a fine human being who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, became (maybe at his baptism) like the prophets of the Old Testament, but even better. Through his adoption by God, Jesus is a very powerful, very good human being: almost God, but not quite.

Docetism: Jesus is totally divine and only appeared to be human. Christ presented himself to humanity in a human costume. A lot like us, but not quite.

Arianism: God is transcendent and holy and can’t be too close to the human without degrading God’s divinity. Even though Jesus Christ is not divine, he is the absolute highest and best creation who ever was. Human, but not quite; God, but not quite. God has not sullied God’s godliness by descending to us, but by taking Christ as our model, we can ascend toward God.

To all these heresies, orthodox Christians have said that what God has not assumed can’t be healed. A Jesus distant from either God or humanity can’t save. The doctrine of the incarnation is the church’s attempt to talk about what countless Christians have found true: God has turned to us, a turning that’s typical of a God who from the first, shows up, who won’t let us alone, no matter how much it costs.

Moses is told that nobody can look upon the face of God and live. Because of Christ, now you can.


"Incarnation" is excerpted from God Turned Toward Us: The ABCs of Christian Faith. Abingdon Press, 2021

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