On the Wonder of the Incarnation
Redemption is one of the most fundamental concepts in the Christian religion. So basic is it to the biblical story that I’m not sure I can think of a single version of the faith, orthodox or heretical, for which the issues of humankind’s fall and salvation are not central. One of the key ideas that sets the orthodox faith apart from the various heresies, however, is the fact of the incarnation as crucial to our salvation. Doceticism teaches that Jesus had an illusory body, Arianism that only a high creature of God was incarnate, Nestorianism a strict separation between the divine and human in Christ, and so forth. Orthodoxy, in contrast, insists that God became man. This is considered to be such a profound event that in many high churches it is common to bow, or even kneel, during the proclamation in the creed that the Son “became incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.” Coming up on December 25th, Christians will celebrate this event, in which, in the words of Denise Leverton’s masterful poem on the Annunciation, Mary would
…bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –
but who was God.
The incarnation is the pivot of history, the turning point upon which everything changed. No longer would humanity be alienated from God, for God is now one among them. Yet, certain popular presentations of this event seem to miss its magnitude. Perhaps from familiarity, the stories we tell of humanity’s redemption can at times paint God’s redemption of humanity as a series of divine cleanup operations and little more. God made humanity, but whoops, Adam and Eve screwed up. A few more screw ups and cataclysmic disasters later, God called out the people of Israel to save the world, but what do you know? They messed up to. Finally, realizing that if you want to get a job done you’ve got to do it yourself, God rolled up His pearly white sleeves and came down to do the saving work Himself.
Such a story is problematic for a multitude of reasons. Certainly troubling is its rather pathetic picture of the role of Israel in God’s redemptive work. More disturbing, however, is the fact that it seems to take the incarnation as being no big deal. The picture I’ve painted above is, of course, not a particularly sophisticated presentation of this story. Nevertheless, more complex presentations of redemption can fall into this basic paradigm. I’ve heard one theologian, for example, speak of the redemption of humanity as merely putting us back on our vocational track. As humans, we’re called to make flourishing in the world. This was the call on Adam and Eve, and this will be our job when God sets the world right. In the meantime, there’s also the Christian vocation of making disciples. We were humans at the beginning, we got off course, Jesus came to set us back on course and we work with Him in this by making disciples, and on the last day we won’t be Christians anymore, just flourishing humans. This, I think, cheapens the incarnation.
We must see the incarnation as something so wonderful, so excessive in love, that it changes everything. We are not simply restored to Adamic bliss, we are made into the image of Christ, who is God made man. Indeed, it is this understanding that led St. Augustine, perhaps in a fit of excess, to speak of the “felix culpa,” the happy fault of Adam that, though it led to sin and misery, also led to the wonder of God becoming man. St. Irenaeus seems to have speculated that the incarnation would have happened even if the fall had not. Augustine and Irenaeus understand the sheer magnitude of the incarnation. It is a mystery worthy of bowing, of singing, of feasting, and of fasting. Celebrate the Feast of the Nativity with this on your heart.
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