The incarnation is one of those divine mysteries which is impenetrable in a wonderful way — it’s impossible to understand or explain, but the implications of it are many and they are powerful. For some, its opacity can become an intellectual hangup in their quest to know God (why would God take a form so paradoxical and incomprehensible?) but to focus on what we can know of the doctrine, that God took on flesh and existed as we exist, points to the very opposite conclusion. The incarnation shows not primarily that God is inherently unlike us (although He is) but that He is incredibly, absolutely, relatable. It is true that His incomprehensibility and relatability must exist together, and that is the paradox, but even if we cannot know everything about God, the incarnation shows that He is able to know us completely. We are no mystery to Him.
And that is a marvelous reality, for what do our human hearts long for more than being known and thereby truly loved?
In a conversation with Molly and Leah this week, I was reminded that love requires making oneself vulnerable. There is no way to truly love something or someone else without risking a part of yourself to injury; love requires giving of yourself in a costly manner. For Christ to willingly submit to an embodied, fleshly existence is the essence of taking on vulnerability, and therefore one of the greatest expressions of love to ever be made.
And it was a costly expression, indeed. Jesus’ incarnation not only meant that God took on limitations — the need to eat, sleep, bathe, not to mention simply localizing His presence to a specific time period and place. It also meant that He could trip and scrape his knees when He played on the street as a child. It meant that he would know pain as intimately as any of us might. Not only so, from a theological standpoint, His incarnation was one of the reasons why He experienced the ultimate suffering of the cross. He descended to Sheol and His victory can cover us because He is of our very substance, a genuinely embodied and therefore sufficient propitiation for sin.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, experiences the pain of not being truly seen or known. The loneliness of realizing that another person can only understand you through the lens of their opinions, biases, or feelings is crushing. The chasm of understanding that seems to separate individuals, communities, and cultures can feel insurmountable.
I’d argue that a great deal of the divisive rhetoric, cancel culture, and echo chambers that are endemic to our society stem from an internalization of this pain. The defense mechanisms of shunning and shaming, separating and silencing all spring from people (and groups of people) sensing that others who are different will never understand their perspectives or traumas or needs. And in reaction to this, it sometimes seems easier to remain surrounded by those who are like-minded rather than risk an effort to build bridges that are rejected or not reciprocated.
Indeed, to try to understand “the other” is a daunting and uncomfortable task. To really know any person requires time and presence and attention; to intentionally place oneself in a foreign cultural or social setting is to expose oneself as vulnerable, ignorant of and therefore reliant on others to explain basic norms. Yet such work is holy work, necessary for the kind of relationships that are reflective of the Kingdom of God.
If Jesus had looked at all of the pain, misunderstanding, and rejection He would face on earth and had chosen to stay within the comfort of the Trinity, we wouldn’t have Christmas. Or the Gospel. He went to Hell and back, literally, and thereby knows everything and more of life enfleshed, life with suffering. And He did so knowing that we would never be able to reciprocate, that our limited minds and stubborn hearts would never fully understand Him. That is why the incarnation is a mystery entwined with grace — it is given with not even a pretense of demanding reciprocity.
The incarnation is marvelous for all of these realities, and in the present it bears deep implications for how disciples of Christ must live. For while Christ did indeed take on flesh, his ascent in the end of the Gospels means that He is physical in existence but not physically present with us right now. Somewhere there is a likely-pretty-short, very-much-embodied Jewish man preparing a place for us in His Father’s house, but in this time between the already and the not-yet, that somewhere is not here.
And in that absence, incarnation takes on even more meaning — it is somehow conferred to us, substantiating the imago Dei, making it more than mere likeness. The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said it best: “…for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces” ( from “As kingfishers catch fire”).
Some have been saying that in 2021, what we most desperately need is not a vaccine or a reformed government or a revitalized economy but Christ, Immanuel, God with us. This is true. But for the church, such a statement can never imply passivity, for the way that Christ is present in the not-yet is through humanity. For now, Immanuel is God with us — through us. We are to imitate and “incarnate” Jesus to one another by willingly making ourselves vulnerable, by working to know “the other,” even if there is no reciprocation. Love is not easy and our efforts will only ever bear fruit by the Holy Spirit, but this is the only way to heal the division that ails our communities.
Tomorrow we will celebrate Christ’s birth. We will look at His first coming in remembrance in order to look forward in anticipation of His second coming, when all division and isolation and being unknown by one another will end. In this present time between those comings, may our celebration not end with mere marveling. May the mystery of the incarnation remind us first that Christ assumed frailty in a great display of love; and may it remind us secondly of our charge to do the same. This year has been a year of great pain, and the only way towards real Kingdom healing is for Christ-followers to embrace Immanuel in the not-yet: God with us, through us.
“Into the Darkest Hour,” by Madeleine L’Engle
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.