The Mystery of the Incarnation
Christmas is the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation, that God became man and was born of the virgin Mary. This should invoke wonder and awe at the wisdom of God’s salvific plan for humanity. The first, apparently, to fall down in worship were not the powerful and or the wise of their age but some un-named shepherds and kings from afar together with the earthly parents all surrounded by a host of angelic beings (Luke 2:14). And for this and every Christmas season we should follow their lead and worship the newborn King.
However, awe and worship does not take away the need for reflection upon the mystery of the incarnation. Indeed, the best theologian is the one who having first worshiped, then ponders, studies, reasons and so on. First comes the address from divine Logos and then the response in the form of a human logos.
But what can we say and how can anything be said beyond the words of praise? How can we even begin to peer into this mystery? The traditional understanding of the mystery of Christ is not that it is irrational but that it conveys a kind of knowledge of God, a kind that is lesser known to modern minds. The mystery is both a concealment and a revelation of the God of the fathers. This is like the allegories of Jesus which both revealed and concealed truths about the kingdom of God. The hearer needed to listen attentively to realize their true meaning. Likewise, talking about the incarnation as a mystery is not a refusal to ponder it but as an invitation to look intently at it since it is a revelation of God’s will and being in the form of man.
So what, then, may be learned from contemplating the mystery of incarnation? Here we must remember that we are in good company of other Christian worshippers from whom we may learn to see more. Theology as worship and reflection on the mystery of the incarnation, is not an individualistic or specialist practice but communal and trans-generational. Here we find ourselves in company with the first witnesses and everyone else who have come after, in heaven and on earth. Let us therefore at this season listen to a few of those who have gone before.
God’s Way in Christ
Perhaps the most perplexing feature that has emerged from the encounter with the Son incarnate is that this particular way is God’s chosen way to reveal his glory to us. Born in a manger! Could not God have done that in some other, more convenient or accessible way? Why did God go through such trouble to make salvation known to us? To be really honest, to many a modern mind, it appears to be a rather bad strategy for God to make himself known in this anonymous way.
For the attentive reader of God’s revelatory history in the Old testament, however, God’s way in Jesus Christ should not come as a surprise. In the Old testament we find that the God of the fathers “habitually” chooses to reveal his glory in the meek, the lowly, the obscure, and always in the sinful and morally fragile creatures we are. That God comes to us in the form of a helpless babe born of a humble mother thus seems to be in line with the way God has come to his own in the past. Naturally we expect that this would not be enough, neither in the past nor in the present. God should—or so we surmise—come into the world in a way that is not concealed but fully transparent to everyone, without any veils. That is in many ways as good as our human wishes go but—for reasons only partly known, or higher than our natural reason—this is not how the God of the bible operates.
Thus, for us moderns (indeed, who among us is immune to both modern and postmodern demands on full transparency and authenticity?) it takes an effort on our part to “look”, to stay and behold, to contemplate or, even better, to learn to see what is in front of us in Christ. This activity is something that is both a gift—the supernatural gift of faith through which we may hold on to, and, in an equally supernatural gift, hope for, what we one day will see and to some extent become—and a sustained practice in which we may excel or recede.
In the gospels, people encountered Jesus through his words, signs and actions but not all understood what they saw and heard. (For the time being, how that spark of faith comes about in the heart of a human being we may leave as another mystery.) The apostle John talks in his prologue to the fourth Gospel about the arrival of the Logos “who was God” and that “his own did not receive him”. It seems to take much more than mere information-transfer or fact checking to get to know the mystery of Jesus. During the Christmas season, as we celebrate the mystery of mysteries, this risk of checking off some facts while simultaneously paying too little attention to the substance of those facts is especially high.
Martin Luther once exhorted his hearers in a Christmas sermon to ponder and contemplate the incarnation “deep in their hearts” that they may receive the many benefits of the gospel. Proper Christmas celebration is an invitation to go back in our minds to the nativity scene and begin to look again and again at its significance and listen to the theological murmur and the worship hum of the growing crowd we find ourselves in. We may then experience a little of what Chesterton remarked about tradition, it is a democracy of the dead in which the vote of the unknown martyrs of the early church are as important as the latest theologian or pastor.
Let us, then, in good company revisit the mystery of the incarnation anew this season, with our modern doubts and ancient hopes.
The Fittingness of the Incarnation
Even if the motivation for the incarnation is in line with God’s ways in the past – where the lowly is emphasized over the proud – why should this continue to be so if salvation is to be heard to the ends of the world? Was God somehow forced to become man in this particular way and did God have to become human in order to save humanity? Could this not have been done in any other, more efficient perhaps, way?
In the Christian tradition there are several ways to trace the threads of the revelatory tapestry and we will only pick out a couple. The poignant questions theologians (hopefully with the song of the angels still ringing in their ears) have traditionally asked was “Why did God become man?”
Our hopes of finding good answers to this “why” question must be attuned to our situation and what we inquire about. We should not, for instance, think that we may generate anything like a proof if we do our homework properly. Instead, given the nature of theology as worship and contemplation, we may see clues and motives that builds up to a mosaic. We see through a glass darkly, as the apostle Paul put it (1 Cor 13:12).
Now for anyone acquainted with Scripture and the Christian tradition, the first and obvious answer to the “why” question is something like “for our salvation.” And the saying of Paul for instance, that “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15), seems sufficient. What more is there to say in response?
Well, when Thomas Aquinas brings up this traditional question he more or less summarizes parts of 1200 years of Christian reflection on the “motives of incarnation” in no less than ten succinct points, and not many of them are simple repetitions of “for our salvation”. He and many classical Christian theologians him before (e.g. Athanasius, Augustine, John Damascene and Anselm) and after (e.g. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Herman Bavinck) argued that when God the Son became man we see a display of divine wisdom. Simply put, in this tradition the incarnation was not the only way but the most fitting (convenientia) and wise way that God could atone for our salvation. God was not under obligation to become man, or to atone in this particular way for us, but still he did—for in his wisdom he saw that it was the most appropriate and fitting way with regard to our condition and nature.
Much of Aquinas’ reflections on the subject are drawn from other fertile minds, like Augustine’s, whom he quotes frequently in this (ST, III, q 1 a 2 resp) and other contexts: “We shall also show that other ways were not wanting to God, to Whose power all things are equally subject; but that there was not a more fitting way of healing our misery.” This healing of sanative motif is everywhere present in patristic and medieval source on the incarnation. In this context, Aquinas also quotes Augustine quoting a nearer contemporary to him, Athanasius, and one of the most memorable phrases in theology “God became man so that man may become God.” This paradoxical saying has sometimes been mis- or overinterpreted in the history of the Church, as if Athanasius meant to say that we literally become divine in the process of salvation. That was not his point. It was that in God’s becoming man, God lifts us up to participate in the divine life; an echo of the way that the apostle Peter expressed our relation to God in Christ as “sharers in the divine nature”. (2 Peter 1:4)
The notion of us sharing in the divine nature approaches the summit of any answer to the “why” questions about the incarnation. To some this seemed to suggest that there is somehow in God’s own nature a strong will or tendency to unite itself with his beloved creatures. A minority of later medieval scholastic argued that God would have become man even if Adam had not fallen. Although Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and many other theologians reject such speculations as un-scriptural, we may take home for contemplation a related trajectory: when God becomes man, He truly gives himself to us and does it in a manner that is not only fitting but lovingly accommodated to our finitude and sin.
The themes of incarnational accommodation and gift are to be traced back to Paul’s kenotic hymnal – theology should be sung, not least at Christmas! Christ “emptied” himself of the form of God and took on a human form and became obedient to bear death and cross for our sake and to set an example for our discipleship (Phil 2:5-8).
Athanasius expanded on these themes: “[The Son] was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.” (On the Incarnation, ch 2.8) The Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck went so far as to say that incarnational accommodation is “an antropomorphizing of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, III, p. 277).
In fact, the whole history of creation and redemption may be seen as a series of acts of accommodation or examples of God’s “stooping down to our level” in which God gives creation being from its initial fiat and continues to do so at every moment of time and space. And in the incarnation God paradoxically gives us a share in his own being in a mysterious way.
These are great truths to ponder and “hide in our hearts” as Mary did when she heard the announcement of the Angel. Christ is indeed the most fitting Christmas gift of all, one we may freely receive, hold and give away for free without its ever being spent.
Dr. Stefan Lindholm is an ordained Lutheran minister and lecturer in systematic theology and philosophy of religion at Johannelund School of Theology in Uppsala, Sweden. He is the author of Jerome Zanchi (1516-90) and the Analysis of Reformed Scholastic Christology and founder and editor of Theofilos, a peer-reviewed, Scandinavian theological journal.