Christmas 2020: What Does Incarnation Mean? Three Insights.

God becoming man in flesh is perhaps the biggest belief-ask of Christianity. We call Jesus being born “the incarnation.” This literally means enfleshment–God becoming a real human being, not just the illusion of one. If we believe this, how does it change things? What does it mean? I don’t pretend to know the full significance of the baby Jesus, but God coming into the world as an infant means to me at least these three things:

  1. God becoming flesh means that our bodies and our world are not inherently evil. If our bodies and the world are instead inherently good because God made them and then became them, then we should honor our bodies and the world and care for them appropriately. If we contemplate incarnation, our bodies and the entire created world are revealed as sacred and we should treat them as such. From this view, Jesus’s saying as an adult that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” takes on literal significance, because he mingled himself with the least of us by being an infant. Whether you’ve disregarded a poor person, a widow, a child, or you’ve neglected or abused an animal, or you’ve failed to care for the natural world, you’ve forgotten at least for a time that the incarnation is real. This is a difficult conclusion to stomach, because it gets in the way of our immediate desires. And, even if we try to do better, in our contemporary context we literally cannot escape living in and off of the degradation of human beings and the world God gave us. The incarnation puts us in a position of continual radical responsibility, choice and obligation from which there is no escape. Tragically, even though we’ve been led to believe this by many religious leaders, it is not enough to work on our individual choices, because so much of what is wrong has happened at the collective level.
  2. God deciding to become flesh as a baby must tell something about his nature. Apparently the Christian God wanted to enter into the world powerless, and he pretty much remained so through his life and death. We can reasonably conclude that this God wants people to come to him unafraid, willingly. If we look at what Jesus says, he clearly wants to lead and for people to take on his values and his calls for action, but he wants them to do this in absolute freedom of choice. That doesn’t mean he didn’t harshly warn people about the consequences of their choices, because we know he did on many occasions. So here we see the type of choice that matters–not the choice of what to buy, but what way of life to live. His coming into the world and dying powerless must mean that powerlessness is to be emulated, that force should never be used to get others to do what you want. What we do militarily, with the police, and in our economy, moves contrary to the values of Christ because it’s coercive and violent. This is a conclusion more difficult even than the first, because we deeply suspect that we won’t be able to hold our world together without the continual use of force. And that is true; our world would fall apart if we completely abandoned the use of force. But that does not change the conclusion.
  3. Following from the first two observations, the incarnation shows that God wants to cooperate with man. If he is not into forcing us, and we are free to choose, then it is reasonable to conclude that we are now given the responsibility to make the world alongside him. This is frightening. Most people pray and speak as if they want God to just take care of them. “Please make the pandemic go away and keep me safe from the virus.” “Please help me change my attitude towards my enemies,” “Please stop the flooding.” But if we are “co-creators,” made responsible for each other and for the world we were given, then prayers like that miss the mark–they don’t recognize what happens when God becomes a child and grows up in the world, teaching as he goes. We were supposed to also grow up, to take responsibility for our actions, not to test God’s power to save us from ourselves, and not to resort to ritualized forgiveness sessions that endlessly repeat. This conclusion is perhaps the hardest of all to contemplate, because the incarnated infant and crucified God has tried to kick the crutches out from under us. In response, we have spent most of our time making new crutches instead of getting on with our own creative efforts to make this world what it could be, something much closer to Paradise than the Hell it is now for so many of us.

My Christmas wish for all of us, whether Christians or not, whether we believe the Christmas story or not, is to really sit with and imagine the implications of the Christmas story, as we move into 2021, a year in which we should be sober, and mourn, and begin to take responsibility both personally and collectively, for what we’ve done and what we can yet do.

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