Thursday, December 24, 2009


All language falls short of reality, but when we attempt to describe the mystery of the Incarnation, words fails utterly. Throughout history, words have poured forth profusely in an effort to explain a mystery so great that angels have longed to look into.

The Incarnation. It’s such a strange word, tinged with stained glass and solemn intonation. The word is not native to English. We inherited the word from Latin as that beautiful language tried to express, “to be made flesh.” So strange. To be made flesh. Not to be made of flesh, but rather rendered into flesh. Someone--God--was changed into flesh. No wonder the angels were curious.

Theologians raise objections: God cannot “become” anything because God cannot change. I’m not smart enough to be a theologian. I can only point to the witness of the Holy Spirit: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Although the words of men have failed for millennia, the Word became flesh. God describes himself as “the Word.” What is that Word? It is, simply, Jesus. The Word spoken was an entire life, and that life was the light of men. In that one Word/Life, we discover the glory of God, the grace of God and the truth of God.

In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God pitched his tent among us and showed us how to live. God wasn’t “slumming,” like some Hollywood star sleeping on the streets for one night. He left the most exclusive gated community in all creation and became a little lower than the angels. He lived among us--as one of us--without the benefits of his heavenly nature. The Christmas story comes to us filled with drama and pathos, but in our celebration of the Christ Child, the faith of his parents, the wonder of the Magi and worship from the shepherds it’s easy to miss the point: it’s the beginning of the gospel story, not the story in itself.

What does it look like for God to live like a man? It starts with humility, danger, and promise--not so different from each human life that comes from God. It starts with desperation and need but it continues day after day, month after month, year after year until God’s purposes are fulfilled. Jesus the baby became Jesus the child. And in the same succession of days we all experience, Jesus the child became Jesus the man. He showed us how it’s done. He took no shortcuts, he did not cheat on the exam of life. He was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrew 4:15).

For the past hundred years the divinity of Jesus has been under attack, and the church has rushed to defend from those attacks. Rightly so: he is the Son of God. However, decades of emphasis on his divine nature have come at the expense of an understanding of his humanity. Jesus lived his daily life in communion with the Father using the same means open to each one of us: prayer, openness to the Spirit, the witness of scripture, a listening ear, and the life of a disciple. The child Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). It was no charade: Jesus was a man. If we grasp his humanity we can encounter the hope of Christlikeness for ourselves as well. The Incarnation is not only a theological teaching, it is a picture of what is possible for followers of Jesus.

An overemphasis on his divinity creates a picture of a saving God who is beyond our reach. An overemphasis on his humanity reduces Jesus to a beloved character who is easily marginalized by the changes of culture and time. It took the early church two centuries to come to an acceptable statement of the mystery—Jesus is at once 100% God and 100% man. The mystery is also the stuff of Christmas meditation.

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