There are some theological concepts that I shy away from because I’m not sure what I believe about them myself. I don’t always feel confident and qualified to talk about them here because of my own doubts and wavering. Incarnation is one to them. Incarnation literally means “embodied in flesh” or “taking on flesh” and in the Christian faith refers to Jesus being the human embodiment of God. I tend to glance over it by saying something like, “it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was Christ or just a really good guy” and the I shift the focus. For the most part I don’t think it really does matter if Jesus was the ACTUAL incarnation of God, or if it is simply the story of how we understand God and our faith. But in the Christmas season it seems important to talk about.
I was reading a book for class recently, The Hospitality of God, by Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham, and this sentience, completely unrelated to the paper I was preparing to write, jumped out at me. “[W]hether or not the doctrine of the incarnation is historically true is less relevant than the beautiful truth of God becoming human for the sake of love.”
I have been content to accept the mystery and wonder of Jesus’s birth and life regardless of whether or not it is factually true. In past weeks we have talked about Reza Aslan's book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, where he talks about the role of the Biblical stories in Roman culture at the time they were written. He says, “The [first] readers of Luke’s Gospel, like most people in the ancient world, did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant.” It may be hard for us to comprehend now, but history was not a matter of uncovering or recalling facts, it was about revealing and sharing truths. Since I’m already being pretty honest and vulnerable, I’ll say that I don’t believe the both of Jesus happened exactly the way the Bible describes it. Nonetheless, what I have been missing is the love part that Mary Gray-Reeves' quote illuminates. The facts and history, the the stories being true, are unimportant because of love. I do not need the stories to be true or the history to be factual to tell me the that it is remarkable that God became human, messy and complicated. Human like you and me, because of love.
The Matthew birth narrative begins with 15 verses of genealogy. The detailed lineage of Jesus all the way back to Abraham. It begins normally enough, Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. But then, Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. A couple generations later, Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Then, David the King was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba.
There are four women named in the lineage of Jesus, which is remarkable in and of itself because women weren't included in family lineage. But these aren’t just any women either, the stories that we know about them don’t portray them in the best light. It even says right in the lineage that Solomon was the result of King David sleeping with another man’s wife, after he killed of course (but they left that part out). These are pretty human, humans! There certainly isn’t anything particularly nobel of divine about them. Another thing of interest about these women is that they were all Gentiles, meaning that they were not Israelite or Jewish, they were outsiders, considered to be outcasts, lesser people of society.
Jesus’s lineage includes outcast women with less than prestigious stories. Jesus, God manifest as a human, comes from messy, imperfect humans.
Not only is God manifest as human, with the most unlikely lineage, God is manifest as the most unlikely human. From a poor family, from an un-wed mother, from a no-where town, who spent the first part of his life living as a refugee. For every reason, this birth could be completely unimportant and easy to ignore. No one would expect God to show up there.
Incarnation is important because if we can suspend our disbelief, if we can allow the unimaginable to sneak in and we believe that God became fully human in a baby, than we can also allow ourselves to see God in everyone. God is manifest all around us, in remarkable and unexpected ways. Holy birth happens everyday if we are open to seeing the unexpected. This is the magic and wonder of Christmas, the story of Christmas is not just a one-time event that happened in the middle east 2000 years ago, it happens everyday, all the time.
I have come to realize that incarnation is important because we have to believe that God is manifest in us too. I have to recognize the moment and call of God manifesting in me. Though I feel unprepared and not enough, God is working in and through me and God is working in and through you. The Holy One is manifesting in us, Unassuming. Unexpected. Messy. Complicated. Human us. This is the gift and blessing.