Incarnation

Stained Glass Window of the Nativity

Stained Glass Window of the Nativity

I’ve been thinking recently about the incarnation, the coming of God in the form of a man.

The word “incarnation” comes from the Latin word carne meaning meat or flesh. It is the same word from which we get carnal, to be motivated by the desires of the flesh, and also carnivorous, meat-eating. So incarnation means to become flesh. In the words of John: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

This is one of the essential mysteries yet central truths of Christianity: That God himself became a creature of flesh and blood. From the time that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived until…well, that is one question: What marks the end of the incarnation? Was it that moment on the cross when Jesus committed his spirit to God and breathed his last? Or when, three days later, his body disappeared from the tomb? Yet after that he went to great lengths to prove to his scared disciples that he wasn’t a ghost but was still flesh and blood, still incarnate. Perhaps, then, on the day that he ascended back to the Father? But even then he didn’t abandon his body, though since then he has not been physically present with us.

It was, however, a slightly different question that caught my attention. During the incarnation Jesus was fully divine and fully human. And in his ascension he took his humanity with him into heaven, and in it took us too. So he is still fully God and fully human. But what then of the period before his birth? Did Jesus become human when he became incarnate?

At first our reason wants to say “of course he did!” Largely  because for us being human and being in a body are intertwined we assume that they are essentially the same thing, and so for God to become human he had to get a body. But notice what this means: It means that God was once just God but then became (at least in the person of the Son) God-and-man. What then becomes of our affirmation that God is “eternally the same”? How can we continue to sing hymns that say things like “Thou changest not”? How can God be forever perfect and complete, and yet change?

The problem, as C. S. Lewis so ably pointed out, is in the words “before”, “once”—these are words that pertain to us and our experience, but do they have any real meaning for God in his own being?

Consider time as a long stretch of railway track. We are all on a train that is travelling down the track. From our perspective it makes sense to talk of forwards and backwards (future and past). But God is not a passenger on the train. To him the train is not really real, it is a toy train. Look at it from his perspective; that is, imagine looking down on this toy train on its model layout. You can still understand what forwards and backwards mean for the train, but for you yourself the terms have no fixed meaning.

It is not, of course, a perfect analogy, but it may help us remember that God is not bound to time as we are. And so to speak of God changing, which implies a time series of events, is meaningless.

But if God doesn’t change, then Jesus has always been both God and man. And why not? We believe that the Father created all things through the Son. And when the Son made man, he made him in the image of God. He who is fully God and fully human, made man fully human, knowing that he would also put the divine life in him.

Interesting theological discussion, but so what? What does it really mean in the here and now? Does it make any real difference?

Firstly, it confirms to me that the incarnation, including its ending in the cross, resurrection, and ascension, is not God’s “plan B”. So often we talk as though God created man with one plan in mind but that then man fell and so God did a quick re-think and came up with a new plan. But we have no warrant for that view. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb from before the creation. God, who sees everything, past, present, and future, wasn’t surprised by the fall, he was expecting it. Whether we like it or not, this world with all it’s pain, horror, death, and destruction, is God’s plan A.

“How can that be?” We want to cry. And faith replies, “Because it is the best, perhaps even the only, way for God to achieve what he wants, and one day we will understand and thank him for it”.

Another imperfect picture may help us to begin to see this. Paul talks about an athlete who trains for a race. His training is hard, arduous, often painful, but he perseveres for the sake of the crown he will get if he crosses the finish line. There are certainly easier, more comfortable and pleasant ways for him to spend the time before the race but he refuses them. Not because he likes pain and struggle, but because he sees that crown.

Ultimately it is a matter of faith. We don’t have a very good view of the “crown” but we do know God. We know that he sees it, we know that he is goodness itself and wants only the best for us. And so we accept that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Not in itself, for it is easy to imagine a “better”, more comfortable, happier world—just as the athlete can easily imagine an easier way to spend his time—but as a preparation for eternity.

And secondly the incarnation was, in a deep sense, inevitable. It is not God doing something that goes against who he is, nor is he doing something hard for him (though it was painful and unpleasant). It is not God playing at being man, dressing up, acting a part. No, the incarnation is simply God being God. Jesus said “he who has seen me has seen the father”. Not in some esoteric theoretical way, not buried in his teaching, but right there in the flesh. Just as in the beginning he had wrapped that part of himself that was human in flesh and created mankind, so now he wrapped the fullness of himself in flesh and became man. Why? Simply to finish what he had started, to complete the image of God in man. The God-man became flesh so that the flesh-men could partake of the divine.

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One Response to “Incarnation”

  1. La Gigi Perez Says:

    Hello there! This post could not be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this. I am going to send this information to him. Fairly certain he’s going to have a very good read. Thanks for sharing!

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