A number of years ago I remember thinking to myself, "I guess I'm not sure why the Incarnation is important." I knew it was held as one of the critical Christian doctrines, but I was at a loss as to figure out precisely why. It wasn't that I was questioning it's importance, so much as realizing that it was an area that I couldn't with confidence say I understood it for myself. Upon that realization I prayed to myself, "Lord, I would like to understand the incarnation, please open it up to me." It has been quite a journey for me since then, and while I would not claim to be an expert, I can with conviction say that I understand why it is a deeply important truth, and why it makes Christmas so very profound. As one pilgrim on the journey to another, here are my Christmas Eve reflections on the incarnation.
In brief, the incarnation is the word we use to describe God becoming man in Jesus Christ. Etymologically, incarnate = in (in)+ caro (flesh); to in-flesh something, to put something in flesh, a precise description of what God did in the person Jesus Christ. The Incarnation refers to God being made physical, taking on flesh. The fact that God does this reveals a number of profound things about who God is:
God comes Close
In the incarnation, we see a profound act of God coming close to us. While on the throne in heaven, one could argue that God was remote and distant. We are down here, dealing with the problems of this world, while God maintains a kind of cool-detachment from our mortal struggles. Sure, he's overseeing the whole universe, and so in some remote way he's in touch with our problems, but like the CEO of a vast company isn't involved with the day-to-day on the manufacturing line, we could easily believe that God's world and our everyday world don't overlap much. In the incarnation, God closes the distance. He doesn't work on the world redemptively from his C-suite office up in heaven, God gets his hands dirty with us in the trenches. He's not working to fix the story from the outside; he steps into the middle of the story to work his glorious redemption from the inside out.
Given that Jesus is the central facet of God's self-revelation, I find this profoundly meaningful. It means the place where God spoke the loudest and clearest, he worked according to this message: I am with you in this. The incarnation shows us that I shouldn't conceive of God as external to my problems, but with me in the midst of them.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.John 1:9
This is really significant; it's remarkable to me how deeply engrained in me the tendency to see God as "out there somewhere" is, particularly when I'm facing stress or difficulty. It's like this automatic leap I make; once I face something difficult I immediately project God to a million miles away, letting this terrible thing happen to me. In reality, the incarnation tells me I shouldn't be searching for God "out there", I should be looking for him "right here." In fact, in my experience, however long I'm searching for the "out there God" is usually time I'm just spinning my wheels, not making any progress in the situation. Things don't even start to move until I start trying to find God with me in the situation. God's redemption works in this world from the inside-out.
Understood this way, the fact that God chooses to now dwell in us and make us agents of his redemption in the earth seems the most natural continuation of the pattern. If God is in the business of working in this world from the inside-out, it makes all the sense in the world that he would choose to dwell within his followers and in that incarnate himself into every circumstance in their lives.
God becomes a Man
It's also significant that God didn't just become flesh; more precisely he became a human being. In the incarnation, God didn't just join the world he joined humanity, and that is a powerful statement about what it means to be human. Ostensibly God could have resided in any different kind of physical vessel, but he chose humanity to enflesh himself within. This is stunning; there is only one physical form that God has resided within, and that is humanity.
To press this a little further, it's important to recognize that God didn't just dress up as a human, he became a human. God could have just taken the shape of a human, or looked like a human, but not experienced humanness himself, but God went further than that; he didn't appear as a man, he became a man. In fact, Jesus is still a man. Paul writes (post-ascension) these powerful words:
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5
There is still one mediator between God and men, the (still man) Christ Jesus. God the Son has taken on humanity, not just for 33 years on earth, but for all eternity. His humanity has become part of who he is now; God will ever be human in Jesus Christ. Think about that; God has dignified one physical form with his eternal presence, and it is humanity. Humanity is the sole physical vehicle that God has elected to be joined with his deity in this unique way. What a profound and sacred thing to be human!
It fact, beyond that even, I would suggest that the very fact that God himself could even fit into humanity is really stretching. Consider this verse Paul writes about the incarnation:
For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, Colossians 2:9
Now it wouldn't be mind-bending to suggest that part of God dwells bodily in Jesus, but that's not what Paul says: he says the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily in Jesus. Did you catch that: there was no part of God that didn't fit within Jesus, the physical man. The God that doesn't fit within our whole universe fit within Jesus. That is a mystery I don't understand, but I do know it means we as humans are really, really special. We have been made specially as a God-shaped container, precisely created so that God can fit within us. If God is a hand, we are a glove; perfectly matching his shape so he can find expression in and through our humanity.
God gets us
Another facet that follows from God becoming human is that he understands what it's like to be human. God knows, from the inside, what it is to be finite, to be mortal, to have limited power and things outside of your control. He knows the best parts of being human and the hardest parts.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15
This is a great source of comfort to me because it means God actually gets me; he knows what it feels like to have the struggles I have, the fears and the concerns. He knows what it is to be weak, tired, or disillusioned. God doesn't have to try and imagine what it is like to be human, or even picture it perfectly in his mind; he has experienced it directly. God knows humanity not just perfectly from the outside, but perfectly from the inside as well.
God believes in us
Perhaps as much as anything else, the incarnation defines a specific and unique relationship between God and humanity. Humanity has become the landing pad for God to step into creation, and that it something unique to us. The creator enters into the created by taking humanity upon himself, and that is profound and powerful. Long before the atonement, this telegraphs to us what God thinks about us; we are the only flesh he has taken on, and with that established, it should be no surprise to us that God is willing to give his very life to redeem us. The atonement is the natural extension of the trajectory we see established in the incarnation, because the incarnation reveals to the universe that God believes in humanity.
Have you ever considered that God could have created his own vessel to incarnate? It's possible he could have created a whole new creature, unique to fulfill the role of God-enfleshed, but he didn't. Even though humanity was corrupted by sin and under the torment of the devil, God still believes in humanity to the extent that this is what he chooses when it is time to take on flesh. It's easy for me to look around and lose faith in humanity; we're amazing at making a mess of nearly everything we touch, but God has never stopped believing in us, and that gives us a handle to be able to believe in ourselves as well.
Before any human being put their faith in God's redemptive atonement, God had already expressed his faith in humanity in the incarnation. God moves first, and our faith is then a reflection of his faith back to us. The incarnation shows us that God believes we are worth inhabiting, and hence worth saving. It is a powerful statement of God's definition of humanity, and echo of Genesis 1:26, when we were declared to be created in the image and with the likeness of God.
Every Christmas we take some time to pause and reflect on this; that has so exalted humanity so as to become one of us, and restore us to our role as image-bearers and vessels of his presence. As we do that this season, I want to encourage you that all of this was perfectly true in Jesus Christ, but it is true for us as well. God is in the business of coming close, of enfleshing himself in us, of getting us and believing in us. The incarnation was the starting point of a kingdom trajectory that continues to this day. God has become enfleshed in Jesus Christ, and he takes up residence in each one of us as well. Incarnation is what God has been about for 2000+ years, and it is how he relates to you and I as followers of him as well.