Every year Christmas comes and Christmas goes. When I was a child, it felt like I waited all year for Christmas. And then for a few glorious hours I was opening presents, throwing wrapping paper on the floor, throwing new socks over my shoulder and out of my mind, and throwing food—my favorite was always the strawberry rhubarb pie— down my gullet. My siblings were just as loud and boisterous, overflowing with joy, swimming in our new toys like Scrooge McDuck in his vault of gold coins. But then, after falling asleep in the glow of warm Christmas tree lights, I would awaken the next morning to the flickering embers of Christmas and another 364-day wait.
For Christians, however, Christmas doesn’t stop on December 25th. As the 2009 Bob Dylan Christmas album was titled, Christians walk around with “Christmas in the heart.” But as I alluded to in my Advent devotional last month, we often do not know what Christmas—the celebration of the incarnation (or enfleshment, the becoming human of the Son of God)—meant and continues to mean for us today. It is only when we truly understand what Christmas celebrates that the holiday loses its confines to December 25th and spreads to all of life.
So, what does Christmas mean? How do we live differently because God became a man and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14)?
Christmas Is About Living
Several years ago, a professor at the seminary I attended lamented that there was a class on the upcoming schedule entitled Practical Theology. This professor exclaimed to the rooftops, “All theology is practical!” I didn’t understand what he meant then, but through meditating on the incarnation, I do now.
The theology of the incarnation is about Jesus’s life. Sometimes we talk about Christmas as if it were only a means to an end, as though the Christ-child were born only to die! Yes, Jesus’s death on the cross is, in the strictest sense of the term, crucial. But when something is stated too simply for too long it starts to become less true, not because what it says is wrong, but because what it doesn’t say leads to serious imbalances. Let this sink in for all of us, then: The incarnation is not just the precursor to a sad death, but the re-created capacity for a good life! Jesus’s vibrant life was not a steppingstone but a cornerstone. It mattered and continues to matter, as we will soon see.
What makes his life so important? Christians throughout the ages have explained its importance using the term recapitulation. The idea is that Jesus has redeemed all of life through his own lived experience. For example, consider Adam, the representative head of the human race, and Israel, a nation uniquely selected to be the conduit through which the nations would be reconciled to God. Adam and Israel both failed in their ultimate purposes and broke other people and groups—and themselves—in the process.
Jesus recapitulates the stories of Adam’s encounter with the serpent and Israel’s desert wandering when he is tempted in the desert. Unlike Adam and ancient Israel, who failed many times, Jesus rebukes the devil three times. Christ restores what it is to be human by becoming the second or “last” Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45-49), and he restores human history by becoming, in some sense, Israel (Matthew 2:15). Christ recapitulated their stories, thus recapitulating—that is, resetting and rehabilitating—our stories. He brings redemption through his incarnation. Recapitulation did not happen in an instant as the Word became flesh or even as Jesus was crucified, Patrick Henry Reardon points out, but “in every moment of Jesus’ life and experience.” [i] Recapitulation, then, is the remaking of all things by God entering the material word as material being. And that remaking of all things includes our own lives. Thus, the incarnation changes the way we live, as Paul claims in his letter to the church at Philippi.
We typically read Philippians 2:6-11 as an example of what scholars call high Christology because of its descriptions of the pre-existent Son of God descending to become a human being.[ii] It might come as some surprise, then, that Paul was not intending to write theology per se. Rather, the passage immediately follows an exhortation in verses 1-5 on how to live with one another and the world around us:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…
Paul then jumps into the beautiful language about Jesus in verses 6-8, as an example of how we ought to live among one another in thought and deed.
[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Paul uses what scholars believe was a pre-existing Christian hymn exalting Christ’s humble nature. To Paul, theology is so practical that he flows from theology to practical advice for living without taking a breath. Theology and living are sympatico. Paul’s point in enlisting this hymn is to demonstrate how God showed us how to be human again through His own incarnation, which was essentially an act of humility, empathy, and service. Being human—truly human—is to take on the lived experience of others and seek their flourishing.
Incarnation Challenges Our Views of Power, Status, and Influence
The fact that God entered the world as an infant has captured the imagination of all since its revelation. Indeed, it is either one of the most beloved mysteries of Christianity or considered its most diabolical scandal.
The fact that God had entered the world as a vulnerable infant means that what we often see as unbeatable odds becomes, in God’s economy, the very thing that will lead us to victory. Much of the world has historically expected victory through military might and “supermen,” but God conquered through a baby born in a manger, the Son of Man who from the beginning had no place to lay his head. We see this paradox all over scripture: Christ defeats by being defeated; he kills death by dying. He crushes his enemies by being crushed on the cross.
Seeing how God can use the weakest things for the greatest victories inspires us, in the midst of life’s messiness and shades of grey, to follow the way of the Lamb—which is a peacemaking, meek, gentle, compassionate, servant-minded way—even when everything within our bones and everything in our culture tells us that we must fight, destroy, and punish like the enemies of humanity do. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “every Christians has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God,” for “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Strangely enough, “To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering.”[iii]
Martin Luther wrote of these notions as a theology of the cross. Somehow God rules from a place of humility, servanthood, and what appears to be defeat; His presence is most evident where the world least expects Him: in the margins, with the downtrodden and the addicts. Of course, the cruciform God will one day return in glory. But still, in the incarnation—the clearest revelation of who God is—we are taught to live for the world, just as Jesus gave his life “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). We are taught to put up our swords when others draw them against us and to forgive those who wrong us unrepentantly. To revise a popular phrase among Christians, we are in, not of, but for the world.
Thus the incarnational life is that which Paul described in Colossians 1:24, “participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (NLT). The wounds in Christ’s flesh are wounds that heal others. By becoming what Frederick Buechner called “good stewards of pain” and allowing the pain we’ve experienced to help us partake in and bring some form of healing to others’ suffering, we live the incarnation.[iv] We become, as Henri Nouwen famously said, “wounded healers.”[v] We serve others, and whom and how we serve is often informed by how we have suffered.
Maria Skobtsova, a Russian nun and poet, gives us a beautiful example of what this looks like. Her daughter, Nastia, died in the winter of 1926. Painful as this was, Maria emerged with a new calling directed by her own suffering, which saw the opening of “a new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”[vi] Soon after, she took monastic vows and moved to Paris. In 1945 she was killed—on Holy Saturday, no less—in a Nazi prison camp for her role in hiding, transporting, and caring for the persecuted Jewish people in Paris.[vii] But like Christ, her life was not taken from her. Rather, she gave it as a willing sacrifice, knowing the suffering she may have to endure to save others. No wonder many Christians today, as Christians and non-Christians did in her own time, refer to her as Mother Maria.
Christmas can make us truly human for the first time
Paul calls Jesus the “last Adam,” meaning that Christ inaugurated a new, restored humanity in his own image (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Through the incarnation, Jesus restores the Father’s disfigured handiwork from its self-imprisonment. Given that humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation, the apple of his eye, we can agree with second-century theologian Irenaeus, who wrote, “the glory of God is humankind fully alive,” and “the life of humans is to see God.”[viii] Indeed, as John writes, in Jesus we have seen God, and in Jesus we are granted abundant life (John 1:14, 10:10). The nearer to God we are, the more human we become.
A recent news story detailed the release of Albania’s last “restaurant bear,” Mark. It had apparently become somewhat commonplace in Albania to keep a captive bear by your restaurant to attract and amuse customers.[ix] Mark had been held in captivity for all his twenty-four years, before his release a few months ago. Seeing pictures and videos of Mark in a cage, one senses that something is off. You know it; others know it; even Mark the bear knows it.
Mark could never really be a bear until he was freed. Until then he was in the image of a bear, but not the likeness. He was whatever he could be within the confines of the cage and his owner’s imagination. He might be a jester, or a monster, or a billboard, but he was certainly not a bear.
The incarnation is a gift of re-creation, the refashioning of humanity in the likeness of God and a lineage that has been recapitulated and redeemed. We are like Mark the bear, released from captivity, from illness, oppression, and death by Jesus, who bore our humanity in complete faithfulness. Mark needed freedom to be a bear, and we need freedom to be the humans we are meant to be.[x]
And just as Mark discovered what it means to be a bear by living in the wild, we discovered what it means to be a human by living as Jesus did: a life of selfless service to others while in loving communion with others. We become not merely individuals but persons existing with and for others. Our bondage made us believe we only exist for ourselves. And now a glorious paradox frees us, for as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” and yet, “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[xi]
In the End
There are those who say that Jesus came only to die; there are also those who say Jesus came only to live and show himself as a moral exemplar, that his death being regrettable and unnecessary. Neither of these views captures the biblical vision laid out by the incarnation.
The incarnation is about life. Redeeming life and redeemed life, restored and eternal life, full and abundant life, immanent and transcendent life. It is the love of God for humankind. It is the gift of life with God. It is living to die and dying to live. It is the Numinous within us, forever—even, or especially, the days after Christmas.
[i] Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2015), 143.
[ii] This in contrast to “low Christology,” a false teaching that states Jesus’s exemplary life led to his “adoption” by God the Father to divine status. That is why this mistaken belief is sometimes called adoptionism. So, in other words, low Christology refers to a man who became God, whereas high Christology refers to a God who became man. Paul’s passage in Philippians (along with many other passages and, indeed, all passages when understood correctly) clearly establishes high Christology, because is it not humbling for a human being to lower themselves to the level of human being—but it is humbling for God to lower himself. Jesus lived the proper human life, often correcting the mistakes of Adam. For instance, as a human, Jesus did not seek to use his status as/equality with God to his own advantage, whereas Adam had grasped for equality with God, which he should not have done and, unlike Jesus, had no claim to (Genesis 3:5).
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 89, 91.
[iv] See Frederick Buechner, A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory (Zondervan, 2017).
[v] See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Image, 1979).
[vi] From Jim Forest, “Introduction: Mother Maria of Paris,” in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 20.
[vii] Maria was executed by gas chamber at the camp in Ravensbrück, Germany, the same camp from which Corrie ten Boom had been mistakenly released by clerical error. Both Maria and Corrie have been designated “Righteous Among the Gentiles” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
[viii] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7, from James R. Payton, Jr., Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 116. While there is much debate, and pushback, to the translation of “human being fully alive,” in favor of the much simpler and straightforward “a living man,” I think there is good theological reason and contextual reason within Against Heresies to allow for the more dynamic translation, so long as it is not separated from the rest of the sentence (or chapter, better yet) as is so often the case. Just prior to this portion of Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes, “For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor. But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life.” AH, 4.20.5; Payton 114-115.
[ix] Fatos Bytyci and Florion Goga, “Behind bars no longer, Albania’s last restaurant bear,” Reuters, December 7, 2022,https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/behind-bars-no-longer-albanias-last-restaurant-bear-2022-12-07/.
[x] It is this notion that philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev saw as a guarantee only if God exists. He writes, “In opposition to Schleiermacher and many others it must be stated that religion is not a ‘sense of dependence’ but, on the contrary, a sense of independence. If God does not exist, man is a being wholly dependent on nature of society, on the world or the state. If God exists, man is a spiritually independent being; and his relation to God is to be defined as freedom.” Only be dependence upon God are we truly independent, and we are truly independent only if God truly exists. Berdyaev quoted in Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 67.
[xi] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian, 1520,” in John Dillenberger (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 53. It might be helpful to expand on this quote a bit here in order to make more sense of what Luther is saying. Since we are in Christ, we are lord of all and subject to none, for Christ is the Lord, through whom all things were made. We have gained His freedom; He has given it freely to us. However, because of the love of God in Christ, we are bound to all and servant to all. Christ is a servant to all out of love and not because anyone is lord over Christ. In this, Luther is highlighting that in Christ there is a combination of lord and servant that was foreign to the ancient world and his contemporary world and is still today, though the impact of this notion is seen in modern views of leadership as “servant leadership.” We see this also in the proper function of a “pope” as defined by Gregory the Great, known also as Pope Gregory I, who said that the pope is servus servorum Dei, “servant of the servants of God.”