Startlement

The most astounding truth: God became a man.

December 29, 2014Filed under theologyMarkdown source

This was originally published as part of James Metelak’s 2015 25 Days of Christmas Project.


“Startling”: this is the best word I can find for the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is the most surprising of all the miracles. Every miracle is a surprise, of course; it would not be a miracle otherwise. Still, there is something uniquely and specially striking about this one.

God became a man.

C. S. Lewis called this the central miracle of the Christian faith, the miracle on which all others depend: if this one happened, then of course all the others are possible. What is feeding a few thousand people with five loaves and two fish compared to the transcendent One becoming immanent? What is healing a centurion’s dead servant, set next to the Creator squealing at his mother’s breast? What is walking on water or calming a storm, for the God who took up the image of the image of God? Not to make little of these miracles—they are in no way trivial or light. But the Incarnation stands apart.

Even the resurrection of the Son of God is less surprising than his birth. Now, we must never minimize Jesus’ resurrection. It is the means of our justification and the basis all our hope. It is the rock beneath our joy in the long and painful days that stand between us and our own restoration. Its enormity remains. Still, it seems to me less astonishing than the Incarnation. Death has always been an interloper; its reign was always temporary. Once God had taken up this frail form, it seems almost unthinkable that he would fail to raise it from the dead. But the Creator-God wrapping himself in creature-hood was never something we could have guessed.

Look closer. The wonders—the strange, delightful paradoxes—mount up.

God does not change. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are as ever they have been: perfectly united, delighting in each other, needless and complete. And yet, in that marvelous moment in Mary’s womb, there was a permanent change. The Son was then, is now, and will forever be, a human being. He never ceased to be eternal God—not for a moment—but now he is also everlasting man. It was the first and only beginning in the being of God.

God is spirit; he dwells in unapproachable light; no eye can see him and no hand touch him. Jesus the Messiah, though, is a human being through and through. He is David’s descendant, and Judah’s, and Abraham’s, and Noah’s, and Adam’s. He is not invisible at all. Nor is he merely a hologram, an image without the substance of the thing. Other hands touched him, in hope and in hate. His own hands grew blisters when he first learned to use a hammer at his father’s side, touched in healing and forgiveness, were pierced with real nails, still had holes Thomas could when he was raised. His feet had calluses from walking the dusty roads between Jerusalem and Judea.

The Triune Godhead is not taught and does increase in understanding. All knowledge is his from forever to forever. Yet Jesus learned. He grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man; he learned obedience through what he suffered and so became perfect. The immortal, invisible, only wise God took up a mortal body that died, displayed prominently for all to see, in the supreme act of foolishness as the world judges such things. When it was finished, he did not cast away the body as so much detritus. He kept it and raised it gloriously new, beautiful and undying.

God needs nothing. He is totally, completely self-sufficient. Everything that has ever existed or ever will exist, he created, and without his sustaining power everything would immediately cease to exist. He does not sleep, and never needs to eat. The Father worked through the Son to create all things, and it is in the Son that all things hold together. Yet when he walked this earth he ate and slept and had to put away his body’s waste. It was not the appearance but the reality of need. He was both a little boy getting thirsty as he ran around the hot streets of Egypt, and the one who ensures the water that would refresh him continued to exist.

God is holy. He is unassailably good, perfectly just, unfailingly righteous—and Jesus’ family history is a series of portraits of human sin: an adulterous murderer, a Canaanite woman of ill repute, a man who slept with his daughter-in-law, and more than a few who worshipped carved-up rocks and trees instead of God. We were made in the image of God, the mirror of divinity, but the humanity the Son took up was shattered and dirtied beyond recognition. Theh body the Son took was not one crafted not to share our weaknesses; it was like ours in every way. This flesh he baptized, and this flesh divinized. We have come to share truly in the nature of God because God came and shared truly all the nature of man.

The Creator joined with his own being a created, broken thing. Of course every sad thing must now begin to come untrue. If that restoration comes slower than we might hope, we can sense its inevitability nonetheless, like slow-growing vines spreading cracks in some great edifice. The walls will fall—maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but they will fall. Human being, has been joined once more to divinity, as it was meant to be from the beginning. Someday we will be right again—maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but we will be right again.

Every miracle is a surprise, but the Incarnation of the Son of God astounds us at every turn, until it makes every other surprise seem all-but-inevitable. When unchanging God has undergone a permanent change, invisible God has become forever visible, unneeding God has experienced need, unlearning God has learned, immortal God has come to die in a mortal body—what does “impossible” even mean?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Old things are gone. All things are new. Glory to God in the highest.