Monday, December 22, 2014

An Incarnational Christmas

Around the Christmas season, it seems that there are generally two camps that develop among Christians in America. I say generally because I suppose that there are no clear categories really, only a spectrum of sorts. On one extreme of this spectrum are those that fully love and embrace all that is "Christmas-y". Santa, elves, trees, hot chocolate, shopping, wrapping gifts, etc. etc. and so forth. I don't want to knock this person because even in the chaos and tradition, there is beauty and can be much life. God can be glorified in these traditions if they are purveyed correctly. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the strict relgionist (for lack of a better term). This is the one who is adamant that all traditions about the holiday must somehow push and relate the Jesus story. I'll be honest, I hover more in this direction and tend to become something of a grinch about certain things. Nevertheless, I think that even for the person who is concerned with keeping Christmas a story about Christ (though it has incorporated many traditions that were not initially Christian but have been adopted by Christendom throughout the ages), there can be a point that is missed.

My purpose in this blog post is simply to point out this aspect of the Jesus story that is often overlooked; at least I have not heard much mention of it this year. I feel that sometimes we can be a little thoughtless when singing Christmas songs, talking about baby Jesus or anything of that nature. A few mistakes we make are when we fast-forward to the crucifixion/resurrection story, when we mess up certain historical facts about the story (e.g. wise men didn't visit until Jesus was about 3 years old, etc.) or when we elaborate on things that we don't know happened (e.g. "the little Lord Jesus, no crying he made..." I think he cried. He was a human baby after all). Of all of this, however, there is a point that I feel is missed most often in Christianity's attempts at keeping Jesus as "the reason for the season" and it is this glaring question:

Why the incarnation?

Why did God need to become man? Tradition holds that Jesus was indeed fully God and fully man, but we somehow tend to gloss over this incredibly key point in the story in favor of a simple "don't forget baby Jesus!" I feel like there are a number of reasons we avoid talking about this. Among them is the possibility that we don't want people to be turned off by the incarnation. After all, it is kind of a hard philosophical pill to swallow -- Creator becoming created thing? Another possibility is that we don't quite know how to reconcile this conundrum in our own lives so we don't want to invite the discussion out into the open. Whatever the reason for our aversion of pointing to the very key aspect of the Christmas story that renders it specifically Christian, we are not excused from understanding and conveying the reality that God came as man. That in and of itself is vital to the story, not simply a necessary step for the "real" purpose, his death and resurrection.

How Was God Human?

In order to explain why the incarnation of God's divine Word is so important for Christians, there needs be a little explanation of how this was possible without either overpowering Christ's humanity or diluting Christ's divinity. Now, I should say that what I'm about to write is merely one of a vast plethora of explanations within Christian thought. Be that as it may, it is the explanation that has rang most true theologically as well as practically in my life.

First and foremost, we must understand what makes up a person. I have written in the past about the constitution of a human and its relation to mourning and death. The basic takeaway, however, is that humans, aside from being some convolution of body/soul/spirit/mind (these are the general categories used to describe a human), are intrinsically relational. To this extent then we can conclude that we are essentially the sum total of the relationships that we have. So, Jesus was fully man and fully God. 100% human and 100% divine, not some 60%/40% combo or even a fair 50%/50%. To understand this, I find it helpful to take analogy from my own life. As an intrinsically relational person (like God), I am 100% father, 100% son, 100% brother, etc. I am no more of one than another though I may act in one mode at a time or several at a time. When we understand our personhood this way, the incarnation of Christ does not seem so odd. Jesus was fully God and related to all things fully as God. He was also fully man and related to all things as a man does. There could be much more elaboration on this point but I do want to leave space for the reader to ponder. Besides, a full fleshing out of this point would need a whole other post at least and a few hundred books at most!

Why Was God Human?

So here we come to the meat of the issue: the "why" question. Was it not enough for God to simply say "well, humanity, I know Adam messed up but, well, you're pretty good. All is forgiven!"? I mean, if God is a just God, why did he need to stoop so low (taking on flesh) and then go on to die (also critical to the story but remember our focus on the incarnation).

To first approach the topic, we need to frame the issue so that we understand what humanity's role was initially. Mankind was put on earth to act as medium between the created world and the uncreated God. Our ability to stand in both planes, physical and spiritual, allow us to fulfill this divine appointment like no other creature. So, when humanity fell so too did all of the created order of things; that is, creation's way to connect with God was broken. Eastern Orthodox theologian, John D. Zizioulas explains it this way:

"Creation came from nothing, and since it is permeated with the forces of dissolution, it always faces the prospect of reverting back to nothing."

So here we understand that our intrinsic problem  is not caused by sin at the fall but is inherent by our finitude. Death -- real death, metaphysical death and not just physical death -- is a basic creation problem. Humanity was meant to connect creation to God forever and thus facilitate enternality for creation. Sin blocks our ability to fill this role but ultimately there was always need for this mediator -- this perfect human. We are created and as such have no power to remain in existence forever; it is natural to revert to nothingness. There is an "out", however, and that loophole is found in communion with the infinite, the uncreated, the Creator. Before we could fulfill our role, however, sin had to be dealt with. Church Father, Athanasius says

"It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits...what then was God, being  good, to do?"

It was absurd that God should let creation go on reverting to nothing but sin was in the way so that his original plan was thwarted. God faced a two-fold problem then: 1. creation is "dying" 2. humanity cannot be the way they were intended to be. So, being ultimately wise as he is, God decided to step into the story himself in a way that he had never before done (though he had before in various ways through prophets, leaders of Israel and in direct modalities). He became that which always needed to be: the perfect human and, while there, did what ultimately needed done: the rectifying of a world out of balance, the ultimate destruction of sin. Though this ultimate reality remains to be seen, Jesus did what needed done to set the course right again and then invites us to take up the role that we always should have had as intermediate between Creator and creation -- this is the true Christian.

Conclusive Thoughts

In reality, there is much more that could be said about the whole human-creation-God story but, of course, that must be saved for another time and possibly another format. What needs said is that 

The incarnation of God is ultimately about connecting creation to Creator in the most ultimate way. 

It is God showing us the perfect route to be what we were always meant to be. Again, we listen to Zizioulas:

"The disease here is death, so a cure for death is what we are looking for. Salvation has often been set out in moral and judicial terms, in which death has been caused by man's act of disobedience. But it was not our disobedience that caused this evil; it just made its cure impossible. The problem cannot be put right simply by our obedience. Athanasius pointed out that if the problem could be solved simply by forgiving Adam his sin, God could have done so...God could have forgiven him, and all would have been well. But Athanasius showed that the heart oft he problem was not obedience or disobedience, because this was not a moral but an ontological problem. What was required was for the Logos to come to man, and indeed to become man, so that all that has been created can be united to the uncreated."

So in this Christmas season, let us have our presents, our feasts and our family time; these things are good when dedicated to God. Let us also push to remain conscious of the ultimate reason for the season, Jesus. But let us do those things with a mental "eye" to the cosmic aspect of this story. God reconnects creation to Creator and, in the Spring, we'll celebrate his making a way for us to fulfill this role as well. 

Have a blessed holy-day season,

*Further reading:
The Divine Dilemma and it's Solution in the Incarnation. (1998). In On the incarnation: The treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Zizioulas, J., & Knight, D. (2008). Creation and Salvation: Christology. In Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark.

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