“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” John’s gospel
“What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?” Joan Osborne
Last time I looked at some of the reasons why God may have chosen to take on human flesh. I finished by saying that for me the real point of incarnation is not so much God trying to understand humanity but rather God identifying himself with humanity.
‘One of us’ – identification and indignity
For in the Incarnation, God really does become ‘one of us’. He identifies with us completely, in all our weakness and suffering and brokenness. We might not ever exactly describe Jesus as a ‘slob’ as the Joan Osborne song suggests. Yet in one sense in the Incarnation he does become just like us, ‘warts and all’, or ‘with nothing attractive in his appearance’ to paraphrase Isaiah 53.
Indignity is inherent in incarnation. I’ve written before of the ‘blasphemous’ nature of the Incarnation. The Incarnation meant that God actually had to urinate and defecate, to fart, to have his nappy changed and his bottom wiped. God had to live with all the imperfections and indignities of human flesh, human body and human brain. For many this is too shocking to contemplate – God should remain perfect, unsullied and aloof. But that’s not the Christian God.
Could Jesus have sinned?
At this point then we have to ask ourselves, could Jesus actually have failed? Could he really have sinned, and wrecked the mission for which God sent him? Just how human was he, and how real were the temptations he faced? Was there ever any genuine possibility that the ‘Second Adam’ might have gone the way of the first?
I don’t know the answer to this. I can only affirm with classic orthodoxy that Jesus was (and presumably still is) truly and fully human, as well as truly and fully divine. How those two natures interact and intermingle with each other is a mystery I can’t pretend to fathom, any more than I can understand the dance of the Trinity. Theologians talk of homoousios (one substance), but I confess this means very little to me.
My own tentative understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is that he was an ordinary (yet somehow sinless) human completely filled with the living Spirit of God. He did not have special powers of his own; everything he was able to do and know and see came from his perfect, unbroken, intimate connection with the Father by the Spirit.
The God who is more than close
Incarnation is such a vital element to Christianity. To me it’s perhaps the key thing that sets Christianity apart from other worldviews.
I fully accept that other religions and belief systems can have a true sense of the divine, and genuine contact with God. I think such a sense is inherently built into us as human beings, perhaps by evolution but also by God (and these two aren’t in opposition). And of course other belief systems have avatars, incarnations of some aspect of deity. But I think only in the Christian story does the fulness of the transcendent God of eternity actually enter into space-time and into human history, becoming one of us, showing us what he is really like and what he really means and wants.
And incarnation does not just bring God quite close, or make him a bit like us. Used in its broader sense, incarnation also means that we can actually have God living in us here and now. So this isn’t God’s one-off once-for-all Incarnation as a human in Jesus Christ, but rather his multiple incarnation in each one of us by his Spirit. In this incarnation God works in and through us, transforming us and transforming the world through us. This incarnation is how God redeems the world. And it brings God as close as our heartbeat, as our own thoughts.
There is of course a connection between the two kind of incarnation. God’s incarnation in us is made possible by Jesus’ own incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension.
Some Catholic and Orthodox mystics talk about Mary being the prototype Christian, because she was the first to bear Jesus within her – something we must all do in a more ‘spiritual’ and less physical sense.
So did God really become human? For myself, I’m sure he did. But why did he? There are many possible answers. But whatever God’s reason or reasons for becoming one of us, I’m very glad that he did.