What a joyous day Christmas is! Some people prefer Easter as the central Christian holiday, because it celebrates Jesus’ victory over death, and consequently our own victory over death. But I prefer Christmas because it celebrates God’s incarnation in the world. God’s taking on flesh in the world is the precondition for Easter being a meaningful holiday. Our gospel, from the famous Prologue to the Gospel of John, shows some of the astonishingly rich complexities of the incarnation, the “enfleshment” of God. Let’s unwrap some of these complexities, as we all have been unwrapping presents these days.
The first point to make, and perhaps the most surprising, is that only in creating the world does God have any flesh at all. “Flesh” in this context means determinate character. Apart from creation, God has no determinate character, no “nature” about which we might know. So in creating the world, God makes God’s own divine nature as creator of this world. Only as Creator does God have the flesh of a divine character.
Now this is surprising to many people because we are accustomed to projecting our ideas about things within the created world onto God, as if God were another thing within or alongside the world. Such a projection is perfectly appropriate in many dimensions of spiritual life, but it obscures the astonishing grandeur of the incarnation. Space is itself created. So apart from the creation, God is not anywhere, not alongside anything, not alone as if there were room for something else. Time also is created. Apart from creation God is not in time, does not have a date, does not endure, or anything like that. Apart from creation God cannot be a thing that possesses properties in a place or holds a constant character through time. Only because God does create can God have a nature and endure through time. The Bible, of course, never mentions anything about God apart from creation, only that God is the creator of this world and has a meaningful character in relation to the world. When Genesis says, “In the beginning God when God created the heavens and the earth…,” that means that time and space began with the creation, and so did God’s character. The creation of the world is what gives God flesh. The first and most profound meaning of Christmas is that God takes on the character of being our creator.
This means that God is in us, creating us. We are the end-products of God’s creative act. God cannot create us and withdraw, because there is nothing outside of space-time to withdraw to. God is incarnate in each creature, our own true inner nature.
The Gospel of John calls the character of God the “Word.” When with the creation, God became God, it was because of the Word through which all things are created. The Greek word for Word is logos, from which we also get the word “logic” and all of its cognates. In the ancient world, the logos was the fundamental rationale or intelligibility that allows finite determinate things to exist, and philosophers and theologians have debated in what this might consist. I believe myself that the logos, or Word, or divine nature that arises through creating, involves four elements. One is that to be a thing, a created thing has to have a form or pattern. A second element is that created things have parts or components that are integrated by their forms. A third element is that created things have location in space and time; they exist somewhere and somewhen. A fourth element is that a created thing has value, namely the value of having all its components together in its particular form at the spatio-temporal location in which it exists. Its value would be different if it had a different form, some different components, or were existentially located elsewhere. These four elements together add up to the fact that every created thing is a harmony of some sort, perhaps with an unfolding form like a melody, diverse in its components, and particular in its existence. They also indicate how every thing is related to all the other things that connect with its form, its components, its existential location, and its value. God’s incarnate nature is to be the Creator of the ecology of harmonies that constitute our cosmos.
This might seem to be a lot of metaphysics for the Word of God. But remember, it is this Word that became incarnate in the man Jesus, according to John. How can this be?
Inanimate things play their roles as parts of God’s creative act in simple ways, compared with human beings. We have freedom, and thus exercise some control over what we do and are. Being free, we have a problem to find and embody the best forms for our lives. In moral terms, this means we should be righteous, forming our lives justly, although we can choose unjust forms, which is to be unrighteous. Being free, we should honor all the components of our lives, our bodies, our use of resources, our neighbors, our traditions, as we bind them together into the forms for which we are responsible. In moral terms, this means we should be pious toward, or deferential to, the things that we manipulate to form our lives, although we can be callous and abusive instead. Being free, we should engage the issues and problems of our existential location, our politics, our family problems, our social issues, our personal trials. In moral terms, this means that we should have the faith to engage our existential location, although we are so often tempted to live in denial and escape. Being free, we should be concerned to achieve the best possible value for our lives, viewed in ultimate perspective, given the life-forms available to us, the components, and the existential realities of our location. In moral terms, this means we should live in hope that we might be acceptable players in God’s cosmic creative act, although there are many temptations to despair. Righteousness, piety, faith and hope together add up to love: love is the creativity with which we address harmonies, making them more harmonious where we can and always enjoying them for their beauty. A stone automatically has its form, components, existential location, and value. By contrast, we human beings are responsible in part for achieving the best form, for honoring the parts of our lives, for engaging our existential location, and for holding out for the most divine-worthy value.
To be sure, we customarily screw up. We are unrighteous, impious, faithless, and despairing, at least some of the time. We are not perfect in love. All this is to say we are sinners. Christianity sees sin as more serious than merely failing, however. In addition to screwing up, we take our failures to be reasons to alienate ourselves from God. We refuse to accept our responsible roles as parts of God’s great creative act. We turn from the joyous tasks of manifesting and multiplying the harmonies of God’s creation and work against that. We hate rather than love, and in this we magnify our unrighteousness, impiety, faithlessness, and despair. Of course all this alienation is vain. Our very existence is part of God’s creative act. Nothing exists except God’s creating us and the others. So to accomplish alienation we blind ourselves to the reality of our existence. We tell ourselves that we are separate individuals, existing our own, so that we can be selfish. But in fact we all exist together in the seamless ecology of creation. We can no more exist apart from God than a dance can exist without a dancer. God’s dance includes the whole of creation. This is God’s incarnate life. When we blind ourselves to the ecology of our creating God, we live in the darkness to which John referred. But our darkness did not overcome the Light of the Word in Jesus.
How was Jesus the incarnation of the Word? For starters, he showed people how to be righteous. He preached and lived out a life of justice. He also showed people how to be pious and deferential, accepting the value of God’s creation even when parts of it are inconvenient. Jesus demonstrated extraordinary faith, accepting the tragic existential location that brought him to the cross with heroic courage. And Jesus delivered to his disciples and, through them, to us the hope that we might live as blessed creatures in God’s ultimate, creative life. All of this Jesus summed up in his teachings and practice of love. John’s Gospel especially is filled with the work of Jesus making love happen. Jesus was the model of how a human being can embody the Word, with the right forms of life, the right deference to life’s components, the right engagement of existential location, and the right way to human value.
These things Jesus did constitute an astonishing achievement. Yet I have to say that they are the sorts of things we attribute to many of the great religious teachers and founders, the Buddha and Confucius, for instance, or the prophets to whom Jesus was so often likened. Something else about Jesus is what makes him the incarnation of the Word, namely that his historical appearance provided a way to reverse sin’s deep alienation from God. Jesus is a special part of God’s creative act reversing the alienation into which so many if not all people had fallen. To put it more bluntly, Jesus is God saving the world.
This divine saving activity is not so much Jesus the man doing something, although of course it would not have taken place if Jesus had not done pretty much what he did. Rather, the saving comes through our response to Jesus. That response is to see that God loves and accepts us despite our sins. It is to see that our alienation from God is just stupid and self-destructive. It is to see that in following along Jesus’ way we can indeed play our roles as parts of God’s glorious creation even though we still do unrighteous, impious, cowardly, and fainthearted things sometimes.
Our response in these saving ways is, of course, also part of God’s creation, and the official theological term for that response is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God in us interpreting the life of Jesus in such ways that reconcile us to God. Jesus would be only a man, however great a teacher, if the Holy Spirit did not also let us see him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life before God. The Holy Spirit worked in the disciples, the New Testament writers, and in the saints of the Church from the earliest days down to us to interpret Jesus’ life in a phantasmagoria of symbols so that we are reconciled to God. The Holy Spirit, God working in us, delivers us from our vain alienation and gives us joyous ways of living out our roles within God’s creation. I’m sure that Jesus, the Galilean teacher, would have been amazed and perhaps dismayed at some of the interpretations laid upon him. No faithful Jew like Jesus would have been comfortable being called divine, for instance: that would seem like idolatry. But by thinking of Jesus as divine, as God’s own divine Son, come to pay for our sins, loving us despite our sins, showing us the way to love and justice and piety and faith and hope, our salvation is accomplished. What counts for salvation is not the details of Jesus’ life but rather the work of the Holy Spirit in the believers to interpret Jesus to us so that we are transformed. The real Jesus is not only the man, about whose legends we might have doubts. The real Jesus is the interpreted Jesus who delivers us from bondage to sin and alienation from God, whom we know as King of Kings, and Prince of Peace.
The lesson of the incarnation, my friends, is not about Jesus alone. No, it is about the Holy Trinity. God becomes the Father in creating the world. God’s nature as creator is the Word through which all things are created and which was embodied in human form in Jesus. God’s Holy Spirit completes the creation in us, overcoming our alienation and bringing us to God’s joy by making Jesus Christ the Redeemer God for us.
So who is this baby whose birth we celebrate today? It is God coming to glory in the cosmic creation. It is the divine nature fitted into human form in Jesus. It is the Spirit of holiness that allows us to embrace God’s saving love in Jesus. The cosmic drama of creation and redemption pivots on this baby boy, divinely conceived, born in a stable, surrounded by beasts, adored by shepherds, hymned by angels, honored by wise men, exiled to safety, trained in his traditions, followed as a teacher, sought as a healer, loved by his friends, betrayed by his enemies, crucified for our sins, raised for our redemption, and ascended into Heaven which is God’s unambiguous creating activity in every creature in the divine ecology, deeper in our hearts than our separate selves, the common root of us all, the divine life itself whose song is incarnate in all reality. Lord of Lords! King of Kings! Prince of Peace! God with Us! Redeemer!