Some two millennia ago, there was born a child. The circumstances surrounding his entrance into the world were, to put it mildly, modest. No less modest were the two Jewish peasants who were the first to greet him—his parents.
Yet in spite of the obscurity in which he was born and raised, by the time this child’s brief stay of some three decades on this Earth would come to a close, he would have made an indelible impression on his world. Those who knew him and many who knew of him would come to conclude that the helpless, shivering infant whose birth the powers of this world tried mightily to frustrate was none other than the God of all that is.
By now, the story of the birth of Jesus, the Christmas story, is well known to the approximately two billion people the planet over who regard the world’s most famous babe in a manger as God Incarnate. Still, while the proposition that we are that much the better for this familiarity is true, it is only partially true. When something becomes too familiar, the danger that we will lose sight of it becomes imminent. Whether it be a close friend, a spouse, a job, or even a child, familiarity breeds, not necessarily contempt, but more assuredly, negligence. Thus, in order to minimize the risk of inoculating ourselves against the awe of the Christian narrative of the Incarnation, we would be well served to take time this Christmas season to reflect upon the birth of the most significant figure to have ever taken the world stage. Only if we do so shall we understand, and appreciate, just what an amazing story it is.
Only by reflecting upon this story will we recognize, first, that the Greatest Story Ever Told is also the most paradoxical and, secondly, that the paradox in question is insuperable. The recognition of these facts promise in turn to lead us to that of a third: only if the story is true would anyone have thought of relaying it.
Christianity is the offspring of Judaism. Jesus’ apostles, family, friends, and Jesus himself were all Jewish. All of the evidence that we gather from the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament overwhelmingly support the thesis that Jesus never had any intention of founding a religion distinct from the Jewish tradition from which he derived his very identity. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” he assured those, friend and foe alike, who questioned his relationship to Judaism.
This is a crucial consideration to bear in mind when attending to the Incarnation, the idea that God became a human being. As students of the world’s religions have long noted, monotheism is among the greatest contributions that the Jewish faith has made to the religious imagination, to say nothing of the life of civilization itself. It was this fierce monotheism that prevented Jews, at one time, from even ascribing a proper name to God, and it was this monotheism that accounts for why Jews treated idolatry—the worshipping of false gods—as the gravest of transgressions. There was but one God. Any other gods making claims to our allegiance had to be pretenders.
Yet in the first century, a Jewish man comes along and equates himself with this one God. It is no wonder at all why his Jewish enemies recoiled in horror and blasted him with the charge of blasphemy. It is a great wonder indeed, though, astonishing, in fact, that his Jewish relatives, his Jewish friends, and thousands and thousands of his Jewish disciples affirmed his self-identification. The enterprise of deifying human beings was as commonplace throughout the ancient world as was the polytheism from which it was inseparable. But the Jewish world was another matter entirely.
The story of the Incarnation, then, isn’t the story of how a god became a man. It isn’t the story of how an instance of one kind of finite being became an instance of another kind of finite being. The story of the Incarnation is the story how God—the One and Only God—assumed the flesh of a Jewish man. It is the story of how Being itself became a human being.
Infants are the most vulnerable and powerless members of the human species, and yet it is in an infant that Omnipotence became incarnate. Infants are more ignorant than all other humans, and yet it is in an infant that Omniscience chose to dwell. Infants experience more changes, and more rapidly, than all other humans, and yet it is to the flesh of an infant that the Immutable chose to join Himself.
The story of the birth of Jesus is a paradox, not just because it is a story, initially told about a Jew by Jews, in which the Universal and the particular, Being and a being, the Infinite and the finite, don’t just intersect, but actually become one. It is a paradox as well because of its insistence that God became a human being by reason of His sheer love for us.
God did not decide that He would take up residence, if you will, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Had He done just this, there would have been no Incarnation. It is the Incarnation, though, that conveys more powerfully, more unmistakably, God’s unadulterated love for us, for by becoming like us “in all ways,” God sought to know first hand what it was like to be one of us. So, He began His human existence where we begin ours. And, like us, He passed through infancy.
God didn’t inhabit Jesus’ body and soul. He became Jesus. He was, He is, Jesus. Jesus is the God-Man who entered the world as a baby and endured infancy so that, ultimately, by knowing and redeeming our nature, He could reconcile us to Himself.
This Christmas season, let us do our best to lose some of our time worn familiarity with the story of the birth of Jesus so that we can once again, or maybe even for the first time, rejoice in this event upon which world history pivots.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.