Merry Incarnation

The most important historian in my life is the one who described his research project in this way:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4, TNIV)

What he documented in what we’ve come to regard as the second chapter of his book was nothing less than the hinge on which all history turns. Here it is in what’s still the most influential translation of his account into my native tongue, a translation coming to the end of a year-long 400th birthday celebration:

12th Century Italian Mosaic of Nativity
Italian Mosaic of the Nativity, ca. 1150 - The Yorck Project

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Giotto, Nativity
Giotto, The Nativity (early 14th c.) - Wikimedia

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:1-21, KJV)

Gauguin's Nativity
Paul Gauguin, "Bébé, ou Naissance du Christ à la tahitienne" (1896) - Yorck Project

Not just “the Christmas story,” or even “Nativity” — this is Incarnation: the Word made flesh and beginning his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

One day last year in Bethel’s introductory Christianity and Western Culture class, we realized that we might have been assuming too much theological literacy among our students when one of them asked, “What’s the Incarnation?” (Followed by, “What’s the Trinity?”)

In a recent essay for Christianity Today, Jeff McSwain considers why Incarnation (probably more so among evangelicals than their Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant cousins) sometimes gets lost in the shuffle:

If the Incarnation has been overlooked, perhaps it is because of the temptation to assess the events of Jesus’ humanity—his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—only as building on one another in some unlocking, chronological way. This is natural to do because of the temporal, historical nature of Jesus’ earthly life. Unfortunately, the result of such an approach is that it can relegate God’s mind-blowing assumption of our humanity to something like a means to an end—the end being the crescendo of Easter.

Yes, the Word enters into history and so partakes of its particularity and finitude; to deny that would be to deny the humanity of Christ. But He is also fully God, and in eternity, McSwain proposes, events interact differently with each other than in time as we perceive it. So:

The event of the birth of Christ, then, contains all the others. Bundled in the manger is the salvation of the world. The Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension are all present implicitly in the baby Jesus, only to be unpacked over the next thirty-plus years. Far from being secondary, the Incarnation is in a very real sense our saving moment! At Christmas we can thank the Lord with Simeon: “For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). We say this not only because we are looking backward through the Cross to the crib but also because, from the very beginning, even before Adam fell, God was looking “forward” through the crib to the Cross!

Let the words of Simeon’s famous prayer (Luke 2:29-32) be the benediction to this brief Christmas Day post, as memorably *set to music by the British composer Geoffrey Burgon:

*For the closing credits sequence of the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (recently remade as a movie starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth). It seems strangely appropriate to have the “Nunc Dimittis” resolve such a byzantine tale of manipulation and deceit, since the Incarnation comes to a world so dark that it can’t comprehend (or overcome) the Light that enters it.


3 thoughts on “Merry Incarnation

  1. In Ch. 4 of his ‘De Carne Christi’ Tertullian responds to Marcion’s objection that Christ could not have been born in the same way or possess the same human body that all of humanity shares because it is beneath God’s dignity to take on human flesh. Tertullian gives a rather vivid description of what Christ’s birth, and indeed all human birth is like–but argues that the gory details are only evidence of God’s great love for humanity and that Christ’s assumption of flesh in his nativity is just as important to his salvic work for humanity as his sacrifice of flesh on the cross. The picture that Tertullian paints is frankly, not that pretty, but I think his description emphasises part of the real mystery of the incarnation–that the almighty and powerful God took on the fragile, messy, and often painful reality of human emodiment all because of His great love for us, His creation:

    “Beginning then with that nativity you so strongly object to, orate, attack now, the nastinesses of genital
    elements in the womb, the filthy curdling of moisture and blood, and of the flesh to be for nine months nourished on that same mire. Draw a picture of the womb getting daily more unmanageable, heavy, self-concerned, safe not even in sleep, uncertain in the whims of dislikes and appetites. Next go all out against the modesty of the travailing woman, a modesty which at least because of danger ought to be respected and because of its nature is sacred. You shudder, of course, at the child passed out along with his afterbirth, and of course bedaubed with it. You think it shameful that he is straightened out with bandages, that he is licked into shape with applications of oil, that he is beguiled by coddling. This natural object of reverence you, Marcion, bespittle: yet how were you born? You hate man during his birth:how can you love any man?….Christ, there is no doubt of it, did care for the sort of man who was curdled in uncleannesses in the womb, who was brought forth through organs immodest, who took nourishment through organs of ridicule. For his sake he came down, for his sake he preached the gospel, for his sake he cast himself down in all humility even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Evidently he loved him: for he redeemed him at a great price.” (De Carne Christi, 4)

    Perhaps this is an usual passage for Christmas devotional reading, but when surrounded by peaceful nativity scenes and listening to carols like ‘Silent Night’ on repeat during the Christmas season, I think I often forget how dramatic and powerful Christ’s birth was and is. Reading Tertullian, however, I felt a new sense of shock and awe at God’s amazing work in the incarnation.

    1. This is fantastic, Katie! Leave it to Tertullian not to sugarcoat anything — and I think you’re exactly right: we ought not to.

      I also like “bespittle” as a verb. 🙂

      1. Yes, after four years of reading Tertullian I can definitely say he does not shy away from giving the gory details! I also wanted to mention since I forgot to yesterday that the above passage is taken from Ernest Evan’s translation (‘Tertullian’s Treatise on the Incarnation’, S.P.C.K, 1956), so you have him to thank for turning ‘bespittle’ into a verb!

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