Category Archives: Incarnation

The Hope of the Incarnation

The full text of an article published in The Presbyterian Herald, Dec2013/Jan2014, pg 20-21:

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In the summer of 2012 my wife, my son, and I stayed for two weeks in Torremolinos in Spain. Whilst going for a walk off the beaten track I came across a tiny little chapel wedged between two tacky tourist shops. I love churches and couldn’t resist taking a peek inside. When I walked in there were about seven rows of pews, all facing towards a platform at the front. Right in the middle of the platform was a large statue of Mary, lit up with spotlights. People knelt before her to pray and then left the church. I stood at the back watching, wondering where Jesus fitted into their theology. Why wasn’t Jesus in the middle, the centre of attention, lit up for all to see? Then I turned to leave and I saw him. There he was, on the cross, stuck in a dingy corner at the back of the church. In darkness. Ignored. No splendour or majesty. No pride of place. Not displayed for all to see. In a corner in the dark for all to miss.

It’s Christmas time, and many who still bother with the religious element to the festivities will be displaying their images of the nativity: a stable, a few sheep, one or two shepherds, three wise men, and a proud looking Mary and Joseph. And there in the middle he lies: twice the size of a regular newborn, thick wavy locks, a knowing smile, and his hands outstretched as if speaking a blessing over his visitors. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-baby!

Such an image of the nativity says something about our attitudes to the incarnation. Jesus is almost always pictured as a divine figure, sometimes even with a halo. It’s as if so many of us don’t really believe Jesus was also truly human. Do we think perhaps he was just playing at humanity? Taking the form of a human but not really being properly human? Of course, orthodox Christianity has always held that Jesus was truly God and truly man. The mystery of the incarnation is precisely that: “meekness and majesty, manhood and deity, in perfect harmony, the man who is God,” as the song puts it. But I wonder do we tend to lose sight of his humanity when we contemplate the incarnation? Often we see the hope of the incarnation lying solely in Christ’s divinity – the fact that the Saviour – the Wonderful Councillor, the Mighty God – Immanuel – has come. However, it’s also in his humanity that so much hope for us rests, not to mention great wonder. And thus in reflecting on the incarnation we should never lose sight of one important fact:

Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity.

The humility of Christ’s incarnation blows me away. Think about it. God, the creator of life, was knit together in Mary’s womb. As he developed he had to learn to walk, wobbling unsteadily and falling over his own feet again and again until he got the hang of it. The Word of God had to learn words. The one who calls the stars by name had to learn the names of animals, objects, and places. He wasn’t born with the vocabulary of dictionary.com. He didn’t recite sonnets on the day of his birth; nor did he join in with the angelic choir to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo!” God – the sustainer of life – is now sustained by a young Jewish woman. He had to be weaned like any toddler, and if he was anything like all the other toddlers I’ve ever seen then he probably managed to wear more food than he ate. John the Baptist once remarked that he wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. There was a time when Jesus had to be taught how to tie those sandals. He almost certainly learnt carpentry skills from Joseph, and thus the one who hung stars in their place had to learn how to bang two boards together.

Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity.

The one who never tires – never slumbers – accepted the need for sleep. He got hungry and thirsty. The one who reigns on high, Lord over all, now sits quietly at the riverside with every other peasant to wash his clothes. He gets around by walking, often having to spend several days travelling from one place to the next. Judea, for instance, was 70 miles from Galilee. When we read lines like “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” we tend to think it’s like running into town in 20 minutes rather than several days walking and camping in the desert. The omnipresent God now gets around only as fast as his calloused human feet will carry him.

The humility of this is surely breath-taking. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us that Christ “made himself nothing,” “emptied himself,” “gave up his divine privileges.” Jesus wasn’t faking it when he took on humanity. Jesus taking on human nature is not like William Shakespeare sitting a Key Stage 1 English comprehension test. He was truly human.

The hope for us here is summed up well by John Eldredge in his book Beautiful Outlaw: “If Jesus was pretending to be a man then his life is so far beyond ours it can’t really be a model for us to follow. . . But, if Jesus chose a genuine humanity, and drew his power from the Father as we must do, then we can live as he did.” Jesus set aside his divine office and power, and his humility was the humility of utter dependence on his Father. He prayed to his Father and “learned obedience,” so that we might learn to do likewise. In short, Jesus lived showing us how to live, and using only the tools available also to us. Therein lies great hope for us.

Jesus didn’t come in great splendour. He didn’t come in glory. He didn’t put himself onto a stage. He didn’t turn the spotlights on himself. He didn’t display himself in his majesty for all to see. He truly was one of us. Chesterton captured something of the humility of Christ’s incarnation with his poetic words in The God in the Cave: “The strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.”

He joined us – as one of us – in the darkness to bring us to the light; by sharing our human nature he showed us humanity as it was intended to be.

So perhaps the little Spanish church, in putting Jesus in a dark and dusty corner, unwittingly gave him the place that in his incarnation he chose for himself -a light shining in the darkness.

Stephen J. Graham

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