Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Incarnation: Startling and Essential

Stand to Reason Blog offers some interesting thoughts (attributed to Harry Reasoner) about the Incarnation:

The basis for this tremendous annual burst of gift buying and parties and near hysteria is a quiet event that Christians believe actually happened a long time ago. You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival and that many of the trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan. But you come back to the central fact of the day and quietness of Christmas morning - the birth of God on earth.

It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas.

One is cynically, as a time to make money or endorse the making of it.

One is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians, who wish their fellow citizens all the joys to which their beliefs entitle them.

And the third, of course, is reverently. If this is the anniversary of the appearance of the Lord of the universe in the form of a helpless babe, then it is a very important day.

It's a startling idea, of course. My guess is that the whole story that a virgin was selected by God to bear His Son as a way of showing His love and concern for man is not an idea that has been popular with theologians. It's a somewhat illogical idea, and theologians like logic almost as much as they like God. It's so revolutionary a thought that it probably could only come from a God that is beyond logic, and beyond theology. ...

So it goes beyond logic. It is either all falsehood or it is the truest thing in the world. It's the story of the great innocence of God the baby - God in the form of man - and has such a dramatic shock toward the heart that if it is not true, for Christians, nothing is true.

Read it all.

Of course, accepting Christmas graciously and accepting it reverently are not mutually exclusionary. And I'm not sure I can buy the assertion that if the Incarnation is not true, then, for Christians, nothing is true. Saying it that way strikes me as more hyperbolic than helpful. It would be more accurate to say that if the Incarnation is not true, then the other claims made by the orthodox Christian faith are not true.

On that point, I agree with the Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson:

The Incarnation is the central fact of the Christian faith. Without it Christianity falls to the ground. That is why Christians have proclaimed it, defended it, fought and died for it since the very beginning of Christian history [Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1967), p. 76].

I think that we so often emphasize the atonement and/or the resurrection of Jesus that we overlook the importance of the Incarnation in God's work of salvation. I find Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware's perspective helpful on this point:

The Incarnation ... is God's supreme act of deliverance, restoring us to communion with himself. ...

The Incarnation of Christ ... effects more than a reversal of the fall, more than a restoration of man to his original state in Paradise. When God became man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man, and not just a return to the past. The Incarnation raises man to a new level; the last state is higher than the first. Only in Jesus Christ do we see revealed the full possibilities of our human nature; until he is born, the true implications of our personhood are still hidden from us. Christ's birth, as St Basil puts it, is "the birthday of the whole human race"; Christ is the first perfect man - perfect, that is to say, not just in a potential sense, as Adam was in his innocence before the fall, but in the sense of the completely realized "likeness". The Incarnation, then, is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but it is an essential stage upon man's journey from the divine image to the divine likeness. The true image and likeness of God is Christ himself; and so, from the very first moment of man's creation in the image, the Incarnation of Christ was in some way already implied. The true reason for the Incarnation, then, lies not in man's sinfulness but in his unfallen nature as a being made in the divine image and capable of union with God [The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), pp. 70-71].

May you know the blessings of our Lord's Incarnation by growing more and more into the divine image and likeness.

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