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“Concerning the Mystery of the Incarnation”
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Tomorrow evening, many of us will be right back here, in this same sacred space, joining millions of others around the world who will gather on Christmas Eve to ponder what may be the single most imponderable mystery of our faith, the mystery of the incarnation of God in Jesus; God, embodied in a baby, fleshed out in a person, incarnated in the fully human, fully divine, life of Jesus; a mystery so incomprehensible that the church has struggled to explain it, almost from the beginning.
You can see that struggle to understand, and define, the incarnation particularly clearly in some of those early gospels which were written in the first two centuries of the church, but which, unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, did not make it into the canon of scripture. For example, there is the Ebionite Gospel, which fears that believing in the full divinity of Jesus takes us too close to two gods; one, called God, in heaven, and another, called Jesus, on earth. While, on the other hand, you have the Gospel of Thomas, which says that Jesus was so divine that, when he was five, he made a dozen little mud-pie sparrows, who, upon his command, came to life and flew away; a well intentioned effort to make the child Jesus more divine than he really was; not unlike the beautiful Christmas carol which says that when the mooing of the cattle awakened the baby Jesus, he did not cry, as other babies would. (A lovely verse to sing, but, one imagines that the baby Jesus cried about whatever all other babies cry about, because he was fully human.)
And, fully God; a mystery so difficult to understand that the Council of Nicea was convened in 325 A.D. to decide what Christians are supposed to believe about the incarnation, focusing on the question of whether Jesus was the same as God, as about eighty verses of the New Testament seem to say, or the Son of God, as about a hundred verses of the New Testament seem to say.
And, as if those questions concerning the incarnation were not mystery-making enough, there has also always been the question of “Why?,” as in, “Why did God come to be born in Bethlehem and live as a person in the world?” Christianity’s most widely held answer to that question was laid out about a thousand years ago, by a thinker named Anselm, who said that God became human so that God could forgive humans; the idea being that God could not forgive sin unless a perfect sacrifice was first offered to God, and, since there were no perfect humans available to provide that sacrifice, God sent Jesus to live a perfect human life so he could die as a perfect human sacrifice, so that God would then be free to forgive.
All of which has long been believed by many truly wonderful people. But, the longer I live, the more I wonder if we took a wrong turn back there somewhere between Bethlehem and Jackson. Somewhere between there and here, we started wrapping the baby born in the barn in Bethlehem in all these layers of Christian doctrine, when it may have been better for us to be content simply to say that the meaning of the incarnation is that God is with us and God is for us.
Peel away all the layers of doctrine and orthodoxy which we have wrapped around the baby in the manger, and that is what remains; the incarnation as a sign to us that God is with us in the worst and best of life, in joy and in sorrow, in grief and relief, in life and in death; God, so determined to be with us, that God would have come to be among us, in the life of Jesus, even if there had been no sin, because our life with God is not primarily about a problem and how to fix it, but, about a life and how to live it, and a love and how to give it; the love of God, fleshed out, once, in Jesus; and, over and over again, in us; every time we sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus was here, our lives becoming small incarnations of what Jesus was the main incarnation of.
A few years ago, at about this same time of year, I was sitting with a friend who had grown up in Turkey, a Muslim man, who said to me, concerning the season of Advent, “This is the time when Christians wait and watch for the coming again of Jesus, isn’t it?” To which I responded, “Yes, indeed, it is.” To which he replied, “I’m sure you know much more about all of that than I. But, based on all that I know about Jesus,” he said, “I believe that every time anyone speaks or acts with kindness and courage, gentleness and love, Jesus does come again, a little here and a little there”. . .
The mystery of the incarnation explained in a way that actually matters; our lives, small daily incarnations, of the One Big One we will remember, ponder and celebrate tomorrow.