Behind the story of the baby Jesus is a powerful miracle: incarnation
The word incarnation is rarely used except to talk about the theological concept of God becoming flesh. December is the time when we hear it most, because the world is acknowledging the birth of Jesus, an innocent, helpless baby.
We, however, rarely consider seriously the idea of God, Spirit, becoming bone, flesh, blood — man. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, is one of the most amazing workings of an all-powerful God.
Our culture celebrates Jesus’ birth in such a way that the miraculous transformation of an eternal, creating God into flesh is lost in Christmas lists, shopping and all the trappings of the year’s biggest, most expensive celebration. Our family loves Christmas and all the secular trappings: decorations, presents, food, traditions about the time to open the gifts, who distributes the gifts, and menus. We always have a nativity scene:
Through the years Joyce has collected many crèches , all different in style, size and materials. She has them all over the house. One unplanned family tradition is that “baby Jesus” keeps disappearing from the mangers.
It all started with Luke Roe when he was a 2- or 3-year-old and playfully moved all the babies to different parts of the house to confuse his grandmother. Joyce spent a lot of time getting all the infants in the proper mangers. Other grandchildren have carried on the tradition since Luke is now a college junior.
The crèches are interesting ways to remind us of the birth, but they have a way of trivializing the significance of that amazing miracle. Luke’s gospel tells that Mary was visited by Gabriel and told “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Matthew reports that when Joseph was considering quietly ending his engagement to Mary because of her pregnancy, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”
It appears that nothing about Mary’s pregnancy was unusual, but everything about the conception was unusual, supernatural. It goes against all that we know about biology: A virgin conceived a child. We come to understand God’s power at work to transform his son into the Son of Man.
The passages about the birth of Jesus have become so familiar that I almost miss the point of God’s becoming flesh, the creator becoming the creation. God becoming flesh is an idea that seems strange and strangely unfamiliar — almost pagan. The nativity story about the trip to Bethlehem where there is no room in the inn is much easier to grasp. But can we settle for the literal facts when God is showing us one of the most powerful miracles of the Bible?
And what an incarnation! Jesus was born into a family that would be remembered for the timing of Joseph taking Mary as his wife after she is already big with child. He was homeless when he was born and for part of his life when Joseph takes his wife and baby son to Egypt to escape Herod. He grows up in a town that is without reputation or honor. (“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”) He is always identified as a Galilean, the most backward part of the Jewish community.
I believe that God intentionally put the incarnation at a time and place when the world was going through radical changes. Jesus was born when Roman power was conquering the whole world. He lived at the edge of the world where God’s values could grow and expand. Jesus was flesh and blood, but God incarnate, as he was immersed in a broken world. He saw sin all around him. He witnessed the hypocrisy of religious people who filled leadership positions in the Jewish system. He saw simple people who believed when they saw his miracles and heard his teachings about the Kingdom. He touched the blind, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector. He loved his disciples and those women followers who financially supported his work.
Jesus became man because the only way salvation could come to mankind was for God to enter into our humanity, to know the joy of human life, the pain of rejection, the power of healing and relief from illness, the ultimate joy of dying innocently for eternal blessings to mankind, and joy in victory over death. The incarnation begins the ultimate gift that blesses you and me. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
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