For me there are only two absolutely crucial miracles in Christianity, and they’re interlinked – the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ.
In the first, God enters space-time and history and takes on our human nature, ‘humanising’ the deity. In the second, he ‘deifies’ our humanity, conquering death and lifting up humanity into the divine and imperishable nature. ‘God became man that man might become God’, as someone clever somewhat controversially put it. (Athanasius, Google tells me.)
For me, the Incarnation of Christ is the core of what Christmas is about spiritually. It’s not about whether there was a real star of Bethlehem, or an actual stable, or why Matthew and Luke’s accounts are so different – interesting though all these things are. It’s not even necessarily about the Virgin Birth, important though that is. For it is possible (in theory at least) to have the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth.
So what is the Incarnation about and why did God do it?
Getting down and dirty
In the Incarnation, God puts his money where his mouth is. He doesn’t stand on the sidelines calling orders and instructions; he enters into our mess and takes it on himself. To misquote Tom Wright, God rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty (or even bloody) and his boots messy.
God is no aloof sovereign or absentee landlord; he gets right in amongst the soil and muck of his creation. It’s how a true parent trains their children. It’s the demonstration of his care. ‘For God so loved the world…’
Prophets and priests could at best point us to God and his law, and admonish us for our failures. Only the Incarnate God could actually show us God, could be God to us and with us. And at the same time only God in human form could give us a model of perfect humanity to look to and follow. Only he could model true worship, true prayer, true love, true goodness, true faith, true sacrifice – and this is precisely what Jesus did.
In all this, Jesus is the true Israel; he is what Israel was always meant to be and does what Israel was meant to do. In his own bodily life he represents the temple of God’s presence; he acts as priest, as intercessor and mediator between God and man; he perfectly fulfils the divine-human covenant.
Redeeming human nature
There’s an argument that only by becoming or taking on ‘flesh’ – earthly human nature – could God redeem and ultimately glorify our nature. Again, only by God becoming human can humans become divine, or Christlike.
So depending on your theology of the atonement, only the perfect human could offer the perfect sacrifice (I’d prefer ‘make the perfect self-offering’) on behalf of humanity. Or only the perfect human could perfectly fulfil the requirements of the divine law and covenant. By doing so in his own person, Christ becomes our righteousness. He becomes the model, source and foundation of a new kind of humanity – a perfected, liberated, renewed kind, filled with God’s imperishable life. And we who are ‘in’ him become part of this new humanity.
Some argue that God could have forgiven and redeemed us without becoming us. I’m not sure. But either way, this is the way he apparently chose to do it. He chose the way of relationship, of love, of presence, of active involvement. That just seems to be how God prefers to work.
But did God ‘need’ to become human in order to understand what it’s really like to be human? Some have suggested so. I’m not convinced; I imagine God already had a pretty good understanding of the human condition.
But they do say there’s no substitute for direct experience… And of course there’s that verse in Hebrews about having a great high priest, Jesus, who fully understands our condition, having experienced it for himself: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15).
Or what then of the contrary idea that God was already human-like before the incarnation, and that human nature is not utterly alien to God (apart from sin)? Right at the outset in Genesis we’re told that God makes us in his image and likeness, a favour he does not apparently bestow on whales or cats or trees or even chimps.
So it seems there is something inherent in humanity, in us, that uniquely reflects and responds to God. There is a correspondence, a likeness, an affinity. It’s not full or total; we’re not fully gods. And it’s marred and blurred by sin, by the ‘fallen’ or unperfected elements of human nature. Nonetheless, when God does become human there’s something right and natural about it, which would arguably not be the case were he to become a gerbera or a gerbil.
‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ as my favourite early theologian Irenaeus may or may not have said. Or to put it another way, God is most God when humans are most human; is most himself when we are most ourselves.
But I don’t think the main point of incarnation is for God to understand humanity. I think it’s about him identifying himself with humanity – which is where I’ll start next time…