I’m writing this post from row 31 of US Airways Flight 2064 on the second leg of my flight from Alabama to New York. Having spent a relaxing nine days at my parents’ house in the quiet, sleepy, South, I am now pressed into the crush of humanity that is a crowded flight. Crying babies, people with over-stuffed carry-on luggage that WILL-NOT-FIT-IN-THE-OVERHEAD-COMPARTMENT-NO-MATTER-HOW-HARD-YOU-PUSH (yes you must gate-check-it I don’t care if it is Louis Vuitton), and a seatmate with stinky food (baked beans smell great on my stove but not in a poorly ventilated plane).
I tell you this not for a sympathetic chuckle but because it occurs to me that an airplane is a fantastic place to think about the Mystery of the Incarnation on this Sixth Day of Christmas. What other situation offers such a cross-section of humanity (though granted one that has the resources to travel by plane) that calls for close contact and social niceties with people you don’t know and will never see again? What other situation forces you to try to see the face of God in each and every person for several hours at a time? Why did God choose to become human? Why did God choose to become one of us – the same people who, in 2000 years’ time, thought it would be a good idea to cram 150 people into a small space and go hurtling through the air?
In the week leading up to Christmas vacation, my tenth grade religion class sought to answer this question as we identified five reasons for the Incarnation.
- To reveal the depths of God’s love.
- To reconcile us with God through the forgiveness of sins.
These first two have their roots in the Creation Story. Genesis 1:26-27 reads, “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. / God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.”
From the beginning God wanted to be in relationship with humanity. God wanted humans to enjoy the earth and its resources (here dominion is more akin to stewardship than control or subjugation). However, if we keep reading through the book of Genesis, we find several well-known stories about the making and breaking of covenants with God. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, original justice (right relationship with each other) and original holiness (right relationship with God) were broken. The stories of Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel, and even the story of Moses and the Exodus when the Israelites – God’s Chosen People – turn their backs on God, reflect the consequences of the Fall. Humans were not able to stay faithful to God. What makes these stories so incredible is that despite humanity’s overwhelming tendency to sin, God never loses faith in us. No matter how many times humanity broke its covenant with God, God renewed the covenant with humanity. God remained faithful to us and continued to protect us.
The Incarnation was the profound renewal/fulfillment of God’s covenant promises that both revealed God’s love for us and saved us from sin. God loved humanity – God’s creation – so much that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ. God chose to be one of us in all of our messiness, and chaos, and sinfulness. God loved us so much that God gave God’s only son for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus was so radically different from us (in his divinity) and yet so radically similar to us (in his humanity) that only he could be the perfect mediator between God and humanity. Through the Incarnation, Christ took upon himself all human sin so that we might be reconciled with God. Through Jesus God promises that humanity will never be abandoned.
- To be a model of holiness.
Jesus was both truly God and truly human. Jesus was human like us in all things except sin. As such Jesus lived the paradigmatic life of goodness and holiness. He was the model human. The true human. The Gospels tell us to imitate Christ. Understandably, Christians recognize Christ’s birth and Resurrection as the holiest of days in the liturgical calendar, but we can’t overlook what comes in between. Although the Gospel readers are privy only to a short period of Jesus’ life, the way he chose to live and the way he chose to relate to people is pretty clear. Again and again in the Gospels, we see Jesus coming to the aid of the poor, the sick, the widowed, the oppressed, and the sinner. We see a man committed to the cause of justice. We see a man who, despite tremendous suffering, remains faithful to God.
- To partake in the Divine Nature.
This fourth reason for the Incarnation is perhaps the hardest to wrap our minds around. Christ wants us to share in his divinity. This doesn’t mean that we’re gods or that we’re divine. It means that God wants us to share in the divine life and to become the image of God that we were created to be. Going back again to the first chapter of Genesis, God made humans in God’s image and likeness. Jesus is the paradigmatic example of this. Despite our failures and flaws, God invites us to be in relationship with God. We can strive for holiness and goodness.
- To destroy the power of the devil.
Finally, the Incarnation reminds us that on our own, humanity cannot withstand the devil’s temptations. We see this lack of resistance throughout the Bible – with Adam and Eve, with humanity before the flood, with Judas in his betrayal of Christ, and with Peter in his denial of Christ. However, Jesus resisted the devil’s temptation in the desert, thus securing victory over the devil (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). Significantly, after each account of Jesus’ temptation in the Synoptic Gospels, the narrative transitions immediately to the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry where he teaches, preaches, and heals. The sequence of events is not coincidental. Throughout his forty days in the desert, Jesus rebuffs the devil by emphasizing the importance of having faith in God. This faith in and loyalty to God provides a foundation for Jesus’ life and ministry – a foundation that all Christians are called to build upon.
God became human because ultimately, God loves us. God wants us to thrive, but having blessed us with free will, knows that we will not always act in the image and likeness of God. The Incarnation shows us God’s free and unconditional love for us despite our sinfulness. In the person of Jesus, God draws us closer to the divine, shows us how we should live, and promises to love us even when we fail to live up to our divine image and likeness. This is the most beautiful gift of Christmas.