Resurrection makes a lot more sense to me than the Incarnation. In one sense, the logic of resurrection is rather simple: You’re dead, and then you’re risen from the dead. The widow of Zarephath’s son was dead, and Elijah raised him. The Shunamite’s son was dead, Elisha raised him. Lazarus was dead, Jesus raised him. Eutychus was dead, Paul raised him. Jesus was dead, God raised him.
But there is nothing simple about the Incarnation. The notion of “God in flesh” is complex enough. But from there the mystery only deepens and the questions become increasingly unanswerable. The New Testament and the earliest statements of Christian faith affirm in the same breath that the Jesus of Nazareth born in a manger is the same one through whom the whole cosmos was created, that this Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal “Word of God,” that this Jesus of Nazareth, walking around the desert for 33 years, is the second person of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Questions rapidly mount: If Jesus of Nazareth is the second person of the eternal Trinity, where was his body before his birth in Bethlehem? If God is Jesus and Jesus is God, has God always been in flesh, that is, Incarnate? If not, how then is God identical with Jesus? What exactly does “in flesh” mean? How is God ‘born’ to Mary but also ‘eternally begotten,’ as the Nicene Creed says?
What starts as a sentimental story about the infant Jesus lying peacefully in a manger draws us into a narrative about God, humanity, and the cosmos for which human language eventually proves inadequate. As Karl Barth once put it,
“’Incarnation of the Word’ asserts the presence of God in our world and as a member of this world, as a man among men. It is thus God’s revelation to us, and our reconciliation with him. That this revelation and reconciliation have already taken place is the content of the Christmas message. But even in the very act of knowing this reality and the listening to the Christmas message, we have to describe the meeting of God and world, of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ – and not only their meeting but their becoming one – as inconceivable” (CD I.2 S15.3).
This inconceivable reality leaves us wondering, what are we to “do” with the Incarnation?
Well, first and foremost, nothing.
There are a lot of ways in which the Incarnation has “practical” implications for the mission of God’s people, the value of the physical world (God has a body!), and the mystery of our own humanity, among other things. But if we do not first stop and simply behold in awe the ineffable and wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, we risk rushing through this Advent, Christmas, and Ephiphany season while missing the point entirely. We may lose sight of the simple yet profound reality of Immanuel, God with us. We may lose sight of the miracle of God’s unconditional love for creation and our common humanity, that in the person of Jesus, God would humble himself to the point of becoming one of us, that through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, we might be redeemed. We might lose a sense of who God is, namely, Jesus. Again, Barth: “There is no other form or manifestation (of the Word of God) in heaven or on earth save the one child in the stable, the one man on the cross. This is the Word to whom we must hearken, render faith and obedience, cling ever so closely” (CD I.2 S15.2)
Behold the mystery…
Lying in the manger is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh that will come into contact with lepers, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the warm embrace of friends and strangers alike, even those who will betray him.
Lying in the manger is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh that sits at tables next to sinners, sharing delicious food, slaking his thirst with water and wine.
Lying in the manger is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh that will hang on a cross, rise from the dead by the power of the Spirit, and ascend to the right hand of the Father.
Lying in the manager is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh that has taken on the fullness of human nature, identity, and experience – Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
Lying in the manger is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh of the one through whom all things are reconciled.
Lying in the manager is the eternal God in flesh, human flesh which comprehends the Trinity’s eternal movement toward the world in love.
Be still and know that he is God.