One of the most amazing and scandalous things about Christianity is its insistence that in Jesus of Nazareth, God is become Man. Theologians struggled with the Incarnation for centuries; indeed, I doubt whether that struggle may ever end. Probably, not. For, how to comprehend the infinite, compassed in a baby?
The Incarnation is categorically different from all other types of divine participation in history. The countrymen of Jesus tried to apply all of them to him, but without particular success. They are all more or less familiar to us, because they have occurred to us as we ourselves have struggled to understand the Incarnation; and while they all capture a bit of the truth, they are all Christological heresies.
At first they thought Jesus might be a prophet, inspired by God. He was this, to be sure; but he was more. They thought he might be a mage and wonderworker, possessed by YHWH. This he was, too, indeed; but he was more. They thought he might be an avatar, a non-human being, like Krishna; they thought he might be a man who had been transformed into a God, either at his baptism or his Transfiguration, as Herakles and Dionysos had been. They thought perhaps he was a god who had put on the clothing of flesh, using it as a vessel; or that he was just a vision, an apparition, a merely seeming fleshly embodiment, like an immaterial angel taking on apparent human form. They thought he might be a bodhisattva.
All of these notions get at a corner of the truth, without even really indicating it. They are all tangents to the main matter of the Incarnation. But this just means that, however informative they may be, they miss the main thing by a mile. Jesus Christ is different from all other beings. In Jesus, God’s nature and Man’s nature are conjoined, without however being confused. This is important to grasp. In the Incarnation, God doesn’t use humanity, or pretend to it, or assume it like a mantle. He is man. That’s all. In the Incarnation, the relation of God to man is identity.
All sorts of staggering notions follow from this simple fact. First, God is a man right now. And what is true of God at any now is true of him eternally. Thus the Logos is for all nows, all the way back to the beginning of the world, and indeed for all eternity, a man. When the Logos creates the world and infuses it with his logic, he is a Galilean Jew. When this world ends and is replaced by another, purer version of itself, the Logos is a Galilean Jew, still bearing the scars of his Earthly career.
Then there is the fact that the body of Jesus of Nazareth is a procedure of, and integral to, the whole mundane order. Every bit of our world made its contribution to that body, and was involved therein, and taken up thereunto. And bodies are of worlds, not just because their worlds contribute to their constitutions, but because they make their own contribution back. The causal circuit between a body and its world is never broken or incomplete, nor is it ever severed. So the body of Jesus, and of the Logos, contributes to the whole system of things, even now. Thus as Incarnate in Jesus, the Logos is incarnate in the whole cosmos. It is then no great stretch to see him as Incarnate by the Holy Spirit in bread and wine, in manna, in the Word, in the Temple, in the Church, in our human bodies, in the world. And because the body of Jesus is a salient of our world’s eventual utter ingression into the mansions of Heaven, we may understand the soteriological efficacy of the Passion as also the first trump of the eschaton. With Jesus in her van, Earth has already begun her transcendence of her own accidents, and the end of days is already underway.
The redemption of the world and its dissolution and resurrection at the eschaton, then, are the completion of the Incarnation, and the culmination of Creation. God says, of the whole shooting match, “It is Good.”
So good, that he himself assumes it. The most amazing thing about the Incarnation is that in it, God chooses Manhood. Theologians have from the very beginnings of the Church spoken of how God humbles himself to become man, empties himself of his divinity to subject himself to the world. But this notion of kenosis has always seemed to me to get things backward. For, how is it even possible for infinity to be emptied? How can God humble himself, and still remain himself?
Not that the theologians are wrong about this. There is no question that God takes the form of a servant, or that he suffers. But in so doing, it now seems to me that it is not so much that he reduces himself in order to become man, but that he raises manhood to divinity. This notion, too, has been current from the very beginning: Athanasius said that God became man that men might be gods.
But there is more to it even than that.
God chooses manhood, not just for our sake, but for himself. He chooses it as an aspect of his perfection of his own nature in his completed creative act. This is to say, NB, that manhood is from all eternity an aspect of God’s idea of who he is. For he always knows that we Fall, and that we stand in need of salvation; so that he always knows he is become man, and suffers for our redemption, and is ascended into Heaven, and sits there at the right hand of God, eternally a Galilean Jew, with calluses, and wounds. And he chooses all of this from eternity, for himself, as who he is and what he does.
What does it tell us about manhood that from before the creation God means to be man? It tells us that manhood, properly speaking, is something altogether greater and nobler than we had ever imagined. It tells us that there is something in mere human being – properly done – that is worthy of God, and that God likes for himself, as an expression of who he really is. And this gives us some inkling of what human life might be like, were it ever done right.
And because manhood is integral with our world, it tells us the same sorts of things about worldly existence: that, properly done, materiality and animality, and terrestriality, are worthy of the life of God, in and of and for himself.
Christmas Eve is magical. More than at any other time if the year, it is on Christmas Eve that we feel most acutely the hidden inward enchantment of the world, and of our lives, that we have felt so keenly in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, and for which we have so longed. The enchantment of the world is revealed to us in the Incarnation. At Christmas Eve the firmament between dreary quotidian life and high adventure in Faery is attenuated to translucency, and we are most alive to the danger that wild Heaven might break out wonderfully all about us. For, at the Incarnation, God chooses our world, chooses our race, for his own adventure. He chooses us, and our lives. It must be, then, simply, that despite all appearances to the contrary, we live in a supernally fantastic world, and our humdrum lives are the stuff of legends that the very gods might wish to share – for after all, their King chooses such a life for his own.*
Remember that brief instant when you felt the sublime magic? When everything fell into place, and the deep obscure integrity of all things, howsoever humble, was revealed? When you understood that everything was right, and noble; when the world glowed? That was him, a glimmer of him. And, that was a glimmer of you, as you properly could be, and ought to be, and might this very instant be.
And that was a glimmer of our world, as it really is, right now. The only reason the world is coherent, after all, or therefore the least bit intelligible to us, is that it is enchanted through and through by the Logos who is embodied therein.
The love and charity, then, the wonder, exaltation and joy we feel at Christmas are dim foreshadowings of the endless adventure that lies before us in the company of our King.
It is easy to be discouraged in these dark days. But we must remember always that God is already saying, “It is good.” The victory is already won. We here are involved in a vicious skirmish at the outskirts of the main action. The Enemy may overwhelm and destroy our little squadron, but our side has won the day, and we shall feast tomorrow with our shieldmates, in Valhalla. However many times they may return, winter and night are vanquished, are domesticated and rendered joyful servants of God’s purveyance. So likewise for the demons of our age, and their monsters, whether they know it yet or not. So also even for death himself. Spring is coming, from the Dayspring; morning is coming, from the Morning Star. As I write it is past midnight here in California, but already in the gloom I can feel the loom of bright and massive day. The flags of dawn will soon appear above the eastern hills. Aslan is on the move. Christmas is here, by God!
* This might account for their interest and involvement in human affairs, not as angels of their Lord, but for their own sakes, even to the extent of mating with us, as in the legends of Zeus and the Nephilim. There might be something in human corporeal existence that beats immateriality all hollow.