It has been said that we Anglicans (Episcopalians) have an incarnational theology. If nothing else, it means that Christmas cannot be little more than decorations followed by a few days of singing carols, opening presents, and, perhaps, going to church.
Incarnation in its simplest form means to give bodily life to something. If we are, for instance, embodied souls, then what we call the soul cannot be entirely divorced from what we call the body. To cite an old song, you can’t have one without the other. Obviously that can lead to more conversation than I want to have right now, and that’s exactly what happened when the early church began to dive into a deeper understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus. The debate went on for centuries, and is still going on among theologians few have ever read and whose thought has little impact on how ordinary Christians understand it.
On a more prosaic level, the incarnation means that in Jesus, God became fully present, not in mere appearance, but as fully embodied. Just as you and I are fully embodied, Jesus embodied God. That’s a mystery easy enough to apprehend (but not comprehend) when the adult Jesus comes on the scene, but it’s more difficult when we consider the process of incarnation that began with embryonic vulnerability in the womb of a young unmarried woman. The mystery deepens with competing birth narratives that agree on only a few key points: Jesus was born under suspicious circumstances into the peasant class, with serious questions about the security of a place to live. Our simple version of incarnational theology affirms that God chose a time and place to enter into the human experience in the most vulnerable way possible, and it says a lot about who God is.
That’s what our low brow incarnational theology is all about. Do you want to know what God is, who God is? Look at Jesus. It’s all there. And pay attention when God is talking. Jesus is not another self help guru. Jesus is not a revered teacher inspired by God to offer helpful lessons about life. Jesus is not a magician or itinerant faith healer. Jesus is the very word of God made flesh. It means that what he did and said is not to be taken lightly. God has said time and again that he (she) desires life in abundance for us and for all, and Jesus illustrated what that means. He illustrated it not only by what he said and did as an adult, but by how he entered into our time and place in infantile vulnerability.
Not long after Christmas, on the Sunday closest to January 6, many of us will celebrate the start of Jesus’ adult ministry, a leap over years that takes us into his early 30s. But for the moment our attention is focused on Christmas, the nativity, his delivery from womb into the infancy of one whose survival depended entirely on care given to him by everyday people doing their everyday things.
What are we to make of it? Throughout scripture God demanded consideration for the poor, oppressed, persecuted and alien. In the nativity, God entered into our world as one of them. How shall we respond? Does that have anything to do with how you and I are to consider public policies that affect the poor, oppressed, persecuted and alien? God entered into our world in vulnerability. Maybe we should’t be so afraid of appearing vulnerable, so fearful for our own safety that we willingly jeopardize the safety of others. God came as light in the darkness that could not be extinguished. Maybe we could be a little more diligent in shining the light of God’s love into the lives of those about us.
Coming once again to the manger should do more than warm hearts and lift spirits. It should overwhelm us with awe that, if this is what God has done out of love for us, how might we better love ourselves and others, especially those we deem unloveable.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!””
Whom does God favor? Everyone and all of creation. Peace? Peace may be more than the absence of war, but that’s a good place to start.
Merry Christmas, and Peace be with You.