Advent and Incarnation
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way…
This season is observed in many churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a season called “Advent,” from the Latin word, adventus, which means “coming.” Adventus, in turn, is a translation of the Greek word parousia, which commonly is used in the New Testament to speak of Christ’s return.
So: this season may serve us as a reminder both of the original waiting that was done for the birth of the Messiah as well as our waiting for Christ's return.
No, we don’t know the date on which Jesus of Nazareth was born, but what we do know is that the Gospel story for three of the writers begins with the story of that birth and (most importantly) God’s involvement in that birth. In other words, we are invited into the story of Jesus the Messiah at precisely that point of vulnerable humanity. Certainly, then, it is right that we think about and that we thank God for Christ’s first coming to Earth as a baby, his taking on flesh. Surely we thank God for his ongoing presence among us today through the Holy Spirit. If we allow it, this season can sharpen our focus on such things. And, this season can remind us to be in a constant state of preparation and anticipation of Christ’s ultimate arrival at the consummation of all things.
You see, just as Israel waited for Christ to come the first time, so we are waiting for him to come again.
How do you talk about “incarnation”? The “enfleshment” of the creator of the universe is not something we are equipped to explain, is it? In the incarnation, God is taking us beyond what we think we can know, let alone what we do know. The One who had spoken this world into existence lowered himself to live on this world. Jesus was a human being just like us — God in human form. That’s a rather jarring thought. (As a matter of fact, it always has been. Here’s an interesting irony: the first major heresies in the church were not denials of Jesus’ divinity, but denials of his humanity.)
John 1.1-4, 14: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Hebrews 4.15-16: …we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus is approachable precisely because he’s been where we are. Ever feel rejected? Jesus understands. Your family not treat you as you’d like? Jesus understands. People think you’re crazy? Jesus has been there. Feel lonely, like nobody gets it? Jesus has been there. Ever been overcome with grief? Jesus has been there. On and on we could go. It’s the human experience, and Jesus has been there.
But here’s something important for us to think about this season: Incarnation does not end with Jesus. Athanasius of Alexandria put it this way: “He became human that we might become divine” (On the Incarnation, 54). I think that’s a great, straightforward, succinct way to summarize why Jesus became flesh. Not so that we’d become “gods” in a “rule-your-own-universe” sense, but so that we would become godly.
2 Peter 1.3-4: His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.
2 Corinthians 3.18: …all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
The incarnation of the divine did not end with Jesus. Instead, there is a sense in which it began with his life, and continues as our lives are lived in alignment with his.
May God grant that this season of recalling the anticipation before Jesus’ birth long ago will remind us to live in anticipation of his return and also remind us that in this waiting time we are to be an ongoing incarnation of God’s presence in this world. Until his return, may the Lord born so humbly continue to be present, “incarnated” in and through us.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
—Philippians 2.5-8, 13