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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

The Gravity of the Incarnation

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

As we approach Christmas and reflect on Jesus’ birth and its implications for us in our world, we sometimes fail to recognize the gravity of the incarnation. We sing Christmas carols highlighting Jesus’ birth, but there is a temptation for the words to just become syllables we sing without really reflecting on the significance of what we’re actually celebrating.



Jesus’ Preexistence


One of the foundational truths of Christian theology is that Jesus’ life did not begin with his birth. Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity, and who is preexistent with God the Father and the Holy Spirit from before the creation of the universe. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who are somehow one being (as opposed to being three distinct beings who work together). The concept of the trinity is difficult to wrap one’s head around, and to define it any further usually technically falls into some form of heresy.


For our purposes, though, the point is that Jesus, while being born a small helpless baby, is at the same time the second person of the Godhead who has voluntarily set aside some of the attributes which make him God. The attributes of God that we commonly cite, like his being omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at once), and omniscient (all-knowing), are not attributes only of God the Father, they are shared by Jesus and by the Holy Spirit. Outside of his incarnation, Jesus has all of these attributes.


What we see in his incarnation is Jesus temporarily setting aside certain of these attributes in order to enter into creation and participate fully in the experience of humanity. Jesus not only imitates humanity, Jesus is human. This necessarily means laying down certain attributes in order to become human.


Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

In the beginning of his gospel account, John points to Jesus’ preexistence by drawing a direct parallel to the creation story in Genesis 1. Jesus is presented as the Word (λόγος - logos in the original Greek), which is identified as having been instrumental in the creation of the universe.

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:1-5

This is an amazing truth. Jesus is God’s literal word to humankind, his message of love, which has the interesting connection to God’s having created everything simply through his words. Jesus, John tells us, was the agent through which God spoke everything into being. The same voice that commanded the light to exist and to be separated from the dark in Genesis 1 is now crying helplessly from an animal’s feed trough. It is a difficult thing to imagine.


God's Action in the Old Testament


At the conclusion of Job (which is commonly thought to be the oldest book in the Bible), God answers Job’s request from out of a storm cloud (Job 38-41). God presents him with the humbling truth that Job, a man, is simply not capable of understanding the grand workings of God. It is nothing against Job or his intellect, but the scope of the human mind is simply too finite to be able to ponder how God has made the universe, let alone to question him and his methods. This is presented in beautifully poetic language which really puts the magnitude of God into perspective. This is the same God who now rests vincibly in a manger in a humble little corner of the world he created.


The God of the Old Testament is without equal. There is nothing and no one like God in all creation. King David sings praises and marvels at the God who has set the celestial bodies in their courses (Psalm 8, Psalm 19:1-6), the prophet Isaiah attests to the unrivaled greatness of God (Isaiah 40:9-31), the minor prophets bear witness to the folly of the nations opposing God in battle (Joel 2:1-11; Habakkuk 3). The God of the Old Testament regularly intervenes in his creation with hugely impressive displays of power (Genesis 6-8; Genesis 19; Exodus 7-12; Exodus 14; Joshua 10:6-15; 2 Kings 19:20-37).


The fear of the Lord was a very real concept to the Jews living when Jesus was born. This is what makes the incarnation such a beautiful mystery. Across the board, when God intervenes in human history, he does so with astounding decisiveness. When God acts in history, his purposes are always realized.


This is the same being who is now lying in an unassuming manger in the lowly and unimportant town of Bethlehem, unnoticed by the world he has come to save. For the king of the universe to finally, when the time has come at last, enter into his creation to deal the crushing defeat to Satan and sin which was predicted in the Garden (Genesis 3:15), this is how he does it? The undefeated conqueror of the world, unparalleled in power and majesty, has come not in a glorious display of might but in a small and vulnerable baby.


The God of the Old Testament Lying in a Manger


The mysterious way in which God works is worth serious reflection this Christmas season. The cries of God’s creation have been desperately calling out for healing and salvation after sin was introduced, and God’s perfect plan for restoration has finally come to a head. What now lies in the manger is not just another baby, it is the Creator of the Universe concealed in the small and helpless boy who is unable even to hold up his own head.


After witnessing the birth of my own son, I had a moment in the waiting room when the doctor handed him to me and I held his entire person in my two cupped hands. I was suddenly struck by the fact that everything about the man he would one day become was all contained within my two hands. I couldn’t see it yet, but someday he would be bigger, stronger, and (God willing) wiser than I am. All of that was there as I held him in my hands, the only thing needful was time.


How much more amazing for the King of the Universe to be contained in such a small package. All of Jesus’ profound miracles in which he demonstrates sovereignty over nature; all the times he will cast out evil spirits, shrieking and writhing but unable to resist or challenge him; all the healing of every kind of sickness; all the blood that would be spilled to cover our sins; it is all there, lying quietly in the manger. The words of the prophet Amos hold unexpected weight when considered alongside the newborn in the manger.


"Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!"
For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth - the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!
Amos 4:12-13 ESV

The gravity of this moment in human history really cannot be overstated. As Jason Gray so eloquently puts it, “the Conqueror comes in peace.”


When we realize the righteous judgement that God executes on those who scorn him, the incarnation becomes even more beautiful as we recognize that he could very well have come in judgement, but came first to offer peace. The way God introduces himself to his creation in the incarnation is not what Amos was expecting. Indeed, Jesus promises that he will return and that next time, it will not be as a peaceful baby.


Ignatius on the Incarnation


Writing as he awaited his martyr’s death sometime around AD 100 (likely a few years after), Ignatius writes a fiery letter to the church in Ephesus urging them to keep the faith in the face of persecution. Ignatius is a contemporary of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John. Writing in a time when the original apostles are dying off, Ignatius is one of the early Church Fathers who was tasked with maintaining the integrity of the Christian faith and carrying on the work started by the Apostles, and ultimately by Jesus before them.


It is telling that this early on in the history of the Church, those who live out their faith do so with the conviction that the core doctrines about Jesus are literally true. This flies in the face of modern scholarship which wants to paint a picture of the high Christology (that is, the idea that Jesus was divine) developed slowly over a few hundred years, morphing the historical Jesus - an ordinary man - into the legendary icon we know today.


Ignatius’ letters serve to crush this idea because they demonstrate the unbroken line of the original gospel message from the New Testament, reiterated well within the lifetime of those who had direct access to the Apostles. To Ignatius, the incarnation was not a fun hypothetical to ponder wistfully, it was an absolute fact that was worth suffering and dying for. The conviction with which Ignatius writes as he describes the incarnation is beautiful and worthy of our reflection.


My spirit is a humble sacrifice for the cross, which is a stumbling block to unbelievers but salvation and eternal life to us. Where is the wise? Where is the debater? Where is the boasting of those who are thought to be intelligent? For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit. He was born and was baptized in order that by his suffering he might cleanse the water.

Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth were hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord – three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone forth in heaven brighter than all the stars, its light was indescribable and its strangeness caused amazement. All the rest of the constellations, together with the sun and moon, formed a chorus around the star, yet the star itself outshone them all, and there was perplexity about the origin of this strange phenomenon, which was so unlike the others. Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life; and what had been prepared by God began to take effect. As a result, all things were thrown into ferment, because the abolition of death was being carried out.
The Letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians 18-19, transl. Michael W. Holmes

 

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