Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Incarnation

Merry Christmas folks. For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. About mid-November every year, I start getting pretty excited. There's just something about the weather, the decorations, the hot chocolate, the music, the TV Christmas specials...I just love it. The only thing wrong with it is how abruptly it ends. I've long said that when I have a family and host my own Christmas celebration, it will last a full 12 days. I might even hire drummers.

As much as I love all the amenities and feelings associated with Christmas, however, without a doubt my favorite thing about it is what it celebrates. Now, I know that probably sounds trite to a lot of you, and in a way I suppose it is. One can't live through a Christmas season in the United States (and especially the "Bible Belt," which is where I spend my Christmases) without being bombarded with messages from all corners constantly reminding us--sometimes forcefully--what the "reason for the season" really is. Sometimes, in fact, one gets the feeling that the most vocal among these "anti-Happy-Holidays-Jesus-reminders" are using His birth as more of an opportunity to wage an ideological culture war than as a genuinely contemplative celebration. But I suppose that's another blog.1 In any case, if that's the sort of thing you had in mind when I mentioned what Christmas celebrates, then fear not! This is not that blog. Lord knows there are plenty of those already.

No, what I mean is simply this: Christmas is about Incarnation. And Incarnation is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing in the universe. If you're not familiar with the term, it's Christianese for when God became man in the form of Jesus. It means literally, "to take on flesh." This is what Christmas celebrates. The shepherds, the wise men, the manger, and the star, are all incidental to this. This is what the angels thought was worth singing about. (Luke 2:8-14) And taking this seriously has revolutionized the way I think about pretty much everything. Let me show you how.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing in life is how one sees God. I am also a firm believer that, in general, one ought to interpret more obscure issues through the lens of more sure ones. And the surest thing I get from the New Testament is that one should structure her picture of God around Jesus. Taking these together, I am led to believe that the most important thing in life is understanding that God looks like Jesus.

A huge part of that is Incarnation. Key to understanding what Incarnation tells us about God is another great Christianese word: kenosis. Literally "emptying," kenosis helps us see what it was for God to become human. (Phil. 2:5-7) It was to relinquish His position as the infinite creator, and take on the limited form of one of His own creatures. This, I admit, is incomprehensible to us. We can understand that it happened, and we can get some sense of what it means, but the infinite willfully limiting itself to the finite remains in large part mysterious. Nonetheless, taken with the rest of the revelation of Jesus (life, teaching, death, resurrection), the Incarnation tells us something truly amazing: God is the sort of person who will give anything to obtain the object of His affection. It is important to note that He didn't do this because of some rule or constraint on His will that was external to Himself. No, His motivation was simply...love. (John 3:16)

And that changes everything. It tells us that the most powerful force in the universe, the source and sustainer of all being, is in love with you. So in love that He was compelled to become one of us--to step down into our filth and sin and death--in order to bring us back up with Him.

And that in turn tells us something about us. Recently, I've been seeing a lot of infomercials on TV. They always make me chuckle because invariably, at the end, they always double whatever amazing offer they've already made, and they make a point of telling you the value of the product you'll be getting if you call immediately. "That's a $380 value for only $19.95!" I chuckle at this because the value or worth of a thing is defined by what someone is willing to pay for it. So if I'm willing to pay $19.95 for that knife set, then that's what it's worth, regardless of what the seller would have me believe. I'm sure you see where I'm going. If the worth of a thing is a function of what someone is willing to give for it, and God gave Himself for you, then what does that tell you about who you really are? You are incomprehensibly, unfathomably valuable. Your worth is unsurpassed in this universe. Though you may not see it or feel like it, you are truly greater than you know. And the power of that revelation is immense. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is this:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...2

Imagine how different your life might be if that truth was real to you. That within you lives a god who captures the heart of even its Creator. How might your decisions change? Your desires? Your attitude? The way you spend your time?

Another thing we learn from Jesus is that the path to realizing the full potential of our humanity is imitating Him. That is, we are expected to live incarnationally as well. Obviously, for us this does not mean figuring out how to become a lower species, but rather emptying ourselves for the world. Thus, the Incarnation tells us simultaneously what God is like, what we are like, and how we should live. See why I love Christmas so much?

I've really only begun to scratch the surface of the significance of Incarnation. But if nothing else, let this fact sink into your soul this Christmas day: You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.



1 Okay, one more quick thought: one of my pastors noted recently that a lot of Americans seem to be satisfied with the sort of "little baby Jesus" image of Christ that one gets in films like Talladega Nights, rather than the suffering Lord that one actually finds in the gospels. I think she's right. I suggest that the antagonistic, politically-motivated disposition that demands recognition of our holiday tradition over and against theirs is much more amenable to this watered-down, "baby Jesus" caricature than it is to the real Christ who sought no political power and died for His enemies. But again...another blog.

2 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading it. Here is my favorite part,

    "So if I'm willing to pay $19.95 for that knife set, then that's what it's worth, regardless of what the seller would have me believe. I'm sure you see where I'm going. If the worth of a thing is a function of what someone is willing to give for it, and God gave Himself for you, then what does that tell you about who you really are? You are incomprehensibly, unfathomably valuable. Your worth is unsurpassed in this universe. Though you may not see it or feel like it, you are truly greater than you know."

    I felt I took something away from that. I liked how you spoke of the function of worth in relation to the buyer.

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  2. good read!!! and i fully agree with your last paragraph (including the others)!

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