Sunday, December 25, 2005


The stars are bright and brilliant, piercing through the blackness on a silent night in quaint and quiet Bethlehem. On the pleasantly obscure outskirts of this pleasantly obscure village, the golden glow of a lantern illuminates a cozy stable where a miracle has just taken place. A chubby-cheeked, rosy-complexioned, soft and innocent baby boy named Jesus -- the newborn King of Kings and Lord of Lords -- is sleeping peacefully among a circle of curious livestock, adoring shepherds, solemn Eastern nobility, and his satisfied young parents. The sweet fragrance of myrrh and frankincense is mixed with the earthy scent of fresh hay, and hushed voices blend with the soft bleating of wooly little lambs to create an atmosphere of perfect awe and reverence... Certainly, the sight of this sweet child lying in a manger is a humble image—yet, paradoxically, it is a humble majesty that bows the hearts of everyone in the tiny stable. Inexplicably, yet undeniably, the scene invokes a feeling of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and the peace that passes all understanding.

This is what we celebrate when we speak of the "incarnation," is it not? From the Latin word, “incarnatio,” the term refers to the birth of Jesus -- God’s one and only son “becoming in flesh” to join the ranks of the created world for a redemptive mission: to bring peace and good will to all mankind…Mysterious and wondrous, the concept of incarnation stirs our hearts at the recognition of the miracle recorded in the Gospel of John in which "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

That notwithstanding, I believe the common understanding of the incarnation is ill-defined, illogical, and incomplete.

I am not a linguist. I am not a theologian. I freely confess that I cannot read or write Latin, nor have I studied doctrinal terminology from any kind of academic perspective. Still, I have reason to believe that we are missing some of the crude nuances of the term, “incarnation.” My tourist/restaurant-menu-reading fluency in the Latin languages tells me that “incarnatio” does not merely indicate something “becoming in flesh” -- though I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to declare this standard definition incorrect. All I know is that when I order Italian food or Spanish food or Mexican food, I’ve gleaned that the word “carne” simply means “meat.” My familiarity with the Italian and Spanish holiday greetings of “Buon Natale” and “Feliz Navidad,” offer a further clue in translation, presuming that “natale” and “navidad” are related to the English word “nativity” (or “birth”) -- all of which seem curiously similar to the “natio” part of “incarnatio.” And finally figuring in a basic understanding of the Latin- derivative prefix of “in” (which abounds in practically every language with which I’m familiar), a simple syllogism would indicate that “incarnatio” could be irreverently translated as “birth into meat.”

Thus, a further syllogistic rendering of that classic quote from the apostle John could be proposed as “The Spirit-Creator of the Universe became Meat and assumed a place on the space-time continuum among our ignorant and ignoble race.” Alas, the words just fill one with a sense of awe and wonder, don’t they? That true Christmas miracle of the Almighty-turned-Meat…

But to be honest, this definition of the incarnation seems to strike closer to the original Bethlehem scene, when envisioned from a more practical perspective. Perhaps our classic Christmas story needs to be re-written…

It is, in fact, an incredibly dark night. Small, cold white pin-pricks of starlight offer the only interruption to the fearsome and fathomless blackness over the insignificant provincial back-country of colonial Judea. The skies overhead seem mostly clear, but there are dark clouds on the horizon.

An uneasy peace trembles in these times of oppression and foreign domination; in fact, the residents of miniscule Bethlehem will be saddened -- though certainly not surprised -- to see this tenuous peace transformed into a horrifying blood bath within the coming months. Poorly understood but unmistakably recognized, the advance whisperings of revolutions and coups have already caused the powers of the world to begin squirming and squabbling out of fear and self-preservation. Many innocent men, women, and children will soon be sacrificed under the banner of power consolidation, and the bizarre events unfolding this evening seem to merely foreshadow coming troubles…

In the putrid alleyways off the main thoroughfares of Bethlehem, grunts and screams in the darkness give way to the higher-pitched scream of a newborn baby. Instantaneously, inexperienced parents have been inaugurated out of scared teen-agers who hardly even know each other -- their relationship complicated by the social stigma of pre-marital conception. In the weak light and deep shadows of a derelict animal shelter, the young parents stare dumbfounded at the purple body of “their” son, covered in mucous and blood, slimy black hair curling around his cone-shaped head. Not long after the end of labor, strange and surreal visitors begin call upon the young family in the small stable, interrupting this time of intense familial privacy -- poor, dirty, overeager shepherds from the surrounding hill country, elbowing each other and grinning stupidly as if sharing an inside joke; proud foreign dignitaries speaking broken Aramaic and privately babbling in an unknown language amongst themselves. Bleating and braying livestock add to the cacophony, and the senses are overwhelmed by the horrible stench of too many camels, donkeys, and sheep crammed into this overcrowded stable of this overcrowded inn of this overcrowded town… It’s almost too much to take it all in: the fear, the uncertainty, the anxiety -- perhaps a sense of disappointment in this skewed “fulfillment of God’s plan,” or possibly even horror at the anti-climactic comprehension of what has just happened.

Indeed, the Spirit-Creator of the Universe has become Meat and assumed a place on the space-time continuum among an ignorant and evil race. A pitiable lump of flesh and blood that only knows how to scream and cry to communicate its hunger every two or three hours -- all throughout the day, and all throughout the night... Yes, there is beauty and joy in this situation -- as any parent can recall from the hours and weeks following the birth of a child -- but there is also much fear, fragility, and fatigue in caring for such a scrawny new life.

Without a doubt, such an incarnation is a humble event. Yet for the LORD-Yahweh -- El-Shaddai, Adonai -- incarnation is not just humility... Incarnation is humiliation. The Almighty Lord of Heaven and Earth drawing sustenance from the breast of a simple peasant woman, struggling to flail uncoordinated muscles, soiling himself and needing an adult to wipe his bottom for him… It’s an embarrassment. Pausing to carefully consider the realities of the “Word becoming Meat” to live among His people allows for an image that is astonishingly brutal. Feelings of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and peace become hardly the most natural human responses to such an understanding of the events surrounding the incarnation.

Nevertheless, contrary to logical reasoning -- instead of the ignoble aspects of Jesus' birth diminishing the beauty and significance of the incarnation -- such an understanding of the incarnation actually adds immeasurable value and creates a deeper appreciation for exactly what happened on that day that the Word became Meat and made his dwelling among us. As each man and woman experiences life in this broken and ugly world, the incarnation helps to provide consolation and navigation through the evils of the world, as we follow the originally incarnated one. Even as spiritually-reborn sons and daughters of God, we all experience vulnerability, suffering, calamity, and disenchantment as people living as strangers in (yet not of) this world. And in view of the original incarnation, our “light and momentary troubles” no longer seem so ignoble or demeaning. In fact, they are an opportunity for identification and conformation to the image of Jesus.

Furthermore, a more complete understanding of the incarnation gives us a more complete appreciation for God Himself. Reducing the birth of Jesus to a happy, golden postcard image diminishes the miraculous leap over the incredible chasm between us and God -- cheapens it, tarnishes it. The extreme gap between our world’s brokenness and ugliness and God’s glory and beauty, which God’s Son was compelled to experience, is so much greater than we could ever understand. Consequently, a deeper appreciation for the incarnation -- in all its brutality -- helps us to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ… An absolutely amazing gift of grace.

So the mystery of the incarnation is a paradox indeed. Personally, I think if I were there at the scene of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, I probably would have been more prone to gag than to adore, more likely to cry than to smile… Yet as I consider the scene from the vantage point of history, I am indeed drawn into a spirit of perfect awe and reverence. My heart is bowed by the humiliating majesty of Jesus’ birth. And inexplicably -- yet undeniably -- reflection upon the incarnation stirs a feeling of warmth, wonder, joy, fulfillment, and the peace that passes all understanding.


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