Have Yourself a Merry Little (Deconstructing) Christmas, part four
The Incarnation: A Celebration of Human Possibility.
One of the central theological ideas that we encounter at Christmas is the Incarnation. Incarnation literally means, “in flesh,” and in Christian theology it speaks to the relationship with God experienced by Jesus. Before I offer an alternative understanding of what Incarnation might mean, let’s first look at the commonly held understanding of that relationship shared by Jesus with God.
Since at least the 300s, the Incarnation has been literalized to mean that Jesus was the preexistent second member of the Trinity who, for a few decades, took on the human experience (sort of). In this understanding, Jesus is an outsider who comes to save us wretched, depraved humans. Jesus is kind of like Clark Kent. He looks like us, but when he takes off his classes and pops the buttons on his dress shirt, he’s Superman, and Superman isn’t really like us. He can fly. He can walk on water. He can feed five thousand plus. The reason Jesus needs to be a Superman figure is because humanity is so terribly bad, which means we are in big trouble. It takes someone outside of us to save us and appease the wrath of an angry god. In short, through this lens, the Incarnation is a solution to the problem of human wretchedness.
I want to propose an alternative perspective. I believe the Incarnation is a celebration of human possibility. Jesus doesn’t come as an outsider, but as a real flesh and blood human being, who invites us to find the Divine within the human. And this isn’t a swerve or a plan B scenario; far from it. The Jesus experience invites us to see that this has always been the reality of the human situation.
In Genesis 1, God creates humans to be image bearers of the Divine. The poetry of Genesis 1 actually paints the picture of creation as a temple, and what goes inside a temple? The image of the god of that temple. This God doesn’t use wood or stone, but flesh and blood. To be human, in this tradition, is to be inherently good, worthy, and connected to the Divine. You don’t need a bridge to God. You actually live, move, and exist in God. If you are the fish, God is the water. Perhaps what Jesus does is come to us to make us aware of what is already true about us. Jesus shows us that God isn’t an external being to be appeased, but a permeating presence to be experienced and an energy with which we are invited to participate. Jesus reveals what is possible for humanity. John’s Jesus actually says that his followers would do “greater things” than Jesus himself did (John 14:12)!
The Jesus story isn’t meant to shame us for being human, but to call us to a full and whole humanity. When we fail or make a mistake we often explain that failure by appealing to our humanity. “I’m only human,” we say. Which means, “I’m a human. Screwing up is what I do by nature. The bar is low.” Yet, I don’t think that is actually the case. Our problem isn’t our humanity, it’s that we often choose to live beneath our good humanity. We treat one another in sub-human ways that fail to acknowledge the image of God in us and in others. The Jesus story calls us into our humanity, not away from it.
The Incarnation is a radical affirmation that to be human is a good thing, and that the Divine has always been found within the human. Jesus isn’t a *new* idea, but in the experience of Jesus, his friends and followers became aware of this truth in *new* ways.
As I’ve been thinking through all of this, a phrase came to mind that sums this up for me nicely: The medium is the message. The way we say what we want to say matters, and inevitably, the medium influences and becomes part of the message itself. The human medium isn’t a mistake or a problem. On the contrary, it is a gift to be celebrated and lived into and out of.
My favorite Christmas carol is O, Holy Night. One of my favorite lines says:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
This Christmas may we embrace this truth, and may our souls feel their worth.
We are worthy.
YOU are worthy.
Now that’s some good news.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
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