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Another Perspective


As Christmas approaches, I want to offer you a different slant on the idea of incarnation.

Incarnation is a central concept in Christian theology. It affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from his mother and the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man without the integrity or permanence of either being impaired. By affirming Jesus is the Christ, Christians ground incarnation in a definite and known date in human history.*

I have studied, preached, and celebrated the incarnation for most of my life. Yet for many people incarnation is an intellectual notion that is dry, lifeless and highly questionable. Even church people haul it out at Christmas, talk about it, and then quickly move on to issues of morality, discipleship and atonement the rest of the year.

The incarnation is central to Christianity for a reason. It declares God’s love for humanity to be so strong and full that he took human form to reveal the essence of his love in a way people can grasp. Unfortunately, the reality of Jesus being completely man and completely God is hard to grasp for Christians and non-Christians alike. Indeed, the doctrine took its present form in the mid-5th century c.e. to resolve an ongoing debate between those who advocated Jesus was totally God and those who claimed he was just a special person.

Regrettably the 5th century resolution did not end the debate. There are still those who see Jesus as fully human, that he was an inspired prophet like Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. were. These believers advocate we should observe his teachings because they were enlightened and that we should be good people (i.e., see Christ in all people) because this makes for a better world, one that is grounded in social justice.

In contrast, those who advocate Jesus was fully Divine stress the importance of affirming Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Here the emphasis is on Jesus being the much needed sacrificial Lamb of God that atones for humanity’s sinful nature. These believers anticipate being among the elect at the Second Coming (people of other faiths miss out). They also put an emphasis on evangelism so others can know of the good news of salvation that is available to them through accepting Jesus as their personal Savior.

I recall one of my seminary professors reconciling these viewpoints by teaching that God becoming human makes it possible for us to know that God is not a distant, impersonal, stern deity. Through Jesus’ experience, God’s felt everything we feel. Incarnation makes the Holy Other one of us. As we relate to Jesus’ humanity, we come to know him as the Christ.

While I like that explanation, I differ from Christian Orthodoxy in my thinking also. Christianity speaks of the incarnation as the apex of history. Everything before Jesus anticipates the coming of Christ, while everything following Jesus celebrates that redeeming moment in time. The incarnation was a unique intervention by God in history at a definite and known time.

I believe the incarnation, while particular to affirming Jesus as the Christ, is and always has been an ongoing reality. It is not unique, but normal. That is, God is part of the formation of life, every life. Those who lived before Jesus as well as those who have been born after Jesus are also part of an ongoing incarnation. While Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a special moment in time, it is not unique but part of the flow of God’s unfolding revelation of himself. Each of us is like Jesus in that we are an unique expression of God’s incarnation.

The purpose to be found in living therefore is to manifest, is to be, the person God made us to be, nothing more and nothing less. Just as Jesus was created and called to be the Christ, so each of us is called to be the individual God created us to be. Each of us has a vital role to play in the revealing of God’s purposes. Discovering and fulfilling our particular role is the meaning of the spiritual quest in which we are engaged. It is our task to identify, accept and embody what God created us to be.

The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer states this idea in a section of his poem, “The Outpost.” **
Mission: to be where I am
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
where creation is working itself out.

Incarnation is more than a dogma related to the birth of Jesus. It is an ongoing reality that continues through you and me. Each of us contains the essence of God and the calling to be what God created us to be. God works his purposes out in the present moment, through your life and mine. Because of this, all of life’s experiences, including suffering, take on a meaning, purpose and dignity that they otherwise lack. Incarnation is important because it affirms the abiding presence of God in each of our lives, just as he was in Jesus’.

What are your thoughts about incarnation?

* This was taken from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F.L. Cross, ed., London: Oxford University Press, 1966, 684.
** Tomas Tranströmer, “The Outpost,” as found in The New Enigma, New Collected Poems, Robin Fulton, trans. (New Directions Books: New York, 2006).

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