And it was very good: Advent and Incarnation
Part 1 of an Advent series on incarnation.
Yesterday began the season of Advent, the weeks of anticipation and longing leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In these days before Christmas we recall the longing for the Messiah, fulfilled with the birth of Christ, and remind ourselves that we are still longing for the fullness of Christ’s kingdom. Much like Lent, Advent reminds us that we need a savior — and that our savior has come, born in the person of Jesus Christ.
Advent is about the longing, about the hope of a candle lit against the darkness. It’s also about the fact that Christ has come, that he was born to a woman in a particular time and place, that God dwelt amongst humanity. Advent is about incarnation: both the Incarnation, God become human, and incarnation, the fact of our physical bodies and the longing for the restoration of God’s very good creation.
When we sing about sweet baby Jesus, silent in the manger, or when we set up our sanitized nativities, it’s easy to overlook the breathtaking reality of incarnation. Not only did God become a human being, but God did so in the most messy, most human way possible: childbirth.
What a breathtaking affirmation of the goodness of God’s creation.
In my experience, we modern western Christians are not particularly good at thinking about the material creation. We are heirs not just to Christianity but also to Plato — whose articulation of the separation between the illusory material world and real world of ideal forms undergirds centuries of philosophy. Plato’s conception of a reality beyond the material world meshes in many ways with Christianity, but with the unfortunate side effect of elevating the spiritual above the physical.
Elevating the spiritual or metaphysical over the material or physical is especially easy because of the way that sin has marred the goodness of God’s creation. We develop arthritis, catch colds, fight cancer, experience heart failure. We often view our bodies as limitations, as weights that hold the true us (whatever that may be) back from fulfilling our potential.
But when we denigrate our physical bodies, we forget that when God made humankind and thus completed creation, God said that it — creation, the material world — was very good. And while sin may mar that goodness, it cannot erase it: our bodies were created very good, and will one day be recreated and restored to that goodness.
When God chose to come to earth as Jesus, he chose to take on the flesh that he had created. He chose to inhabit a physical body, to experience the joys and indignities of the body. And more, he chose to be born, to experience the fullness of human life from helpless baby, to unsteady toddler, to hormonal teenager, to suffering adult.
God didn’t cheat, creating a body for himself out of nothing, or creating a perfect body. And the doctrine of the Incarnation says that his physical body wasn’t just some shell, some avatar; rather, Jesus was fully human just as he was fully divine. Jesus’s willingness to take on flesh shows a respect for and a profound love for the material body.
The Incarnation suggests that God redeems humanity not by separating the spiritual from the physical but by healing and integrating both. And so over the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring what this means: how should the Incarnation shape our thinking about the material world, and our bodies in particular? What does it mean that the center of our theology is a God who willingly became human flesh? How do we live in the tension between the very good creation and the very real physical effects of sin?
The first candle in the Advent wreath is the prophecy candle, or the candle of hope. As we live in the tension between the promise and fulfillment, may the incarnation give us hope that all creation — material and immaterial — will ultimately be redeemed and once again made very good.