Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Meaning and Purpose of the Incarnation

A sermon on the Prologue to the Gospel according to John

It’s almost a let down. In comparison to Luke’s account of the nativity of our Lord, the prologue to John’s Gospel doesn’t sound very Christmasy. Luke’s version is a powerful, dramatic, and even romantic story. Who can’t be drawn into the scene of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay overnight with their new born son only to find that there’s no room for them in the inn and so they have to stay in a barn and lay the child in a manger? Or what about that scene when the angels appear to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the whole night sky coming alive with blinding light and with the eruption of the heavenly host in a resounding song of praise? It would make a great movie!

In comparison, John’s “Prologue” about the Word sounds like a philosophical treatise. It seems so dry, conceptual, and abstract in comparison to the flesh-and-blood drama of Luke. And yet, it’s John who reveals to us the real inner meaning and purpose of the Incarnation. After all, the Incarnation is what Christmas Day and the Christmas season are really all about.

The birth of Jesus marks the Incarnation of the Son of God in the person of a baby Jewish boy from Nazareth. In ways that proved decisive in later centuries as the orthodox understanding of Jesus' identity was hammered out, John’s Gospel makes clear who and what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. John’s “Prologue” lays the groundwork for the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” Why is that important? It’s important because the reality of our salvation turns on whether or not God really became a human being.

There are two extremes that the Church has often fallen into which John’s “Prologue” allows us to steer a middle way between. One extreme is to say that Jesus is a divine being who cloaked himself in the appearance of flesh and blood, so he wasn’t really fully human. The other extreme says that Jesus is just a human being, no different than you and me. Specially favored by God, to be sure – perhaps even the adopted son of God – but not a divine being at all.

The problem with these views is that in both cases Jesus cannot be a savior. If Jesus is just a divine being, then the chasm between God and humanity created by human sin remains unbridged, and our salvation unaccomplished. As one Christian writer puts it, “salvation must reach the point of human need. Only if Christ is fully and completely a man as we are, can we … share in what he has done for us.”[1] Likewise, if Jesus is just a human being – even the best of human beings – then we remain stuck in our sins. “For, only God can save us. A prophet or teacher of righteousness cannot be the redeemer of the world.”[2]

Rejecting both of these extremes, John tells us that the same Word that was with God in the beginning and that was God “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14 NRSV). And so Jesus Christ is fully and completely God. But Jesus Christ is also fully and completely human. In the Incarnation, the two natures of humanity and divinity are wed into one Person. And so in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ the God-Man is able to make us “children of God” (Jn. 1:12 NRSV) and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 RSV). That is the sacred mystery and the divine gift we celebrate during the 12 Days of Christmas.

We quite rightly place much emphasis on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross of Calvary and the glorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But Christmas Day reminds us of a truth we sometimes forget: that the Incarnation is central to our salvation. For in the Incarnation, in the Word made flesh, God assumes the fullness of our humanity in order to heal our fallen nature. In the Incarnation, God bridges the chasm between Himself and the world. And through the God-Man, we find a pathway on which we can walk with God and grow in the grace that transforms us more and more into the image and likeness of the One who reveals to us what true humanity really is: Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995) , p. 73. Emphasis in text.

[2] Ibid. Emphasis in text.

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