Artillery Row

The Revolution in the stable

We abandon the incarnation at our peril

The incarnation, celebrated by Christians at Christmas, was described by CS Lewis as not only the central thing about Christianity, but, if true, “the central event in the history of the Earth — the very thing that the whole story has been about”. It is perhaps for this reason that one hears so little about it, even at Christmas. It is far easier to talk platitudes about a “season of goodwill” than think about something which, if it is worth talking about at all, must redefine our entire understanding of reality.

But our moment in history, as we end 2021, demands that we must think about it. Many of the social malaises currently afflicting us arise from abandoning the Christianity which provided the structural timbers of Western culture, central to which is the Incarnation. If the timbers of the house are allowed to rot, it is only a matter of time before the roof falls in.

Most people in the Greek-influenced ancient world thought of the body as a mere container

Let’s start with what this “central event in the history of the Earth” is. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”, says the Apostle John. God became man. The creator became part of his creation. In-carn-ation means “becoming flesh” (it’s the same root as “carn-ivore”, a creature that eats flesh); the infinite, eternal God the Son became blood, brain, muscle and bone. He became what he was not without ceasing to be what he eternally was. And so Mary’s Son is simultaneously the infinite, creator God, higher and greater than us in ways we simply cannot conceive, and normal, finite man, like us in every way — except without sin.

Now if this is new to you, you will find it almost unbelievably strange. It is a mystery which the human mind cannot fathom. And yet, strange as it is, it is this teaching which (along with Jesus’ death and resurrection) has given birth to some of the most precious and revolutionary ideas which have been foundational for Western society; and which, as Christian influence wanes, we are now seeing crumble.

The first of these ideas is that it gives huge value to our bodies. Most people in the Greek-influenced ancient world thought of the body as a mere container or, worse, an unfortunate prison for the soul. But if God the Son has deliberately taken to himself a human soul and body, then the very opposite must be true. Christ’s body is now as integral to his existence as his deity. And as we start 2022, technology seems to be more and more alienating us again from our bodies. The “metaverse”, whatever it is, promises almost total liberation from actual physical existence. Countless schoolchildren are being constantly told that their body is alien to, and perhaps the enemy of, who they really are. So the value of our bodies, and their essential importance to our being, is a message that is desperately needed.

We seem to be re-entering a world where some groups believe others to be borderline human

The second is that it shows that all people are essentially the same. What the Son of God took on in Mary’s womb was a human nature. And implied in that is that there is a human nature which we all share; that we are all fundamentally the same kind of thing, which God himself was then pleased to share with us. How radical that was in a world where barbarians were considered at best an inferior sort of human, and slaves and infants not human at all, cannot be overstated. And as we start 2022 we seem to be re-entering a world where mankind is again fractured into groups who believe others to be borderline human. Identity politics sets up impenetrable barriers between us, across which we cannot understand one another or even communicate; between whom there is only enmity. To know that we share and are united by a single nature is more precious now than ever.

Third, it establishes that there is such a thing as truth. Never has the idea that we all inhabit a single reality come under such determined attack. Both the denial of biological sex and Trump’s “alternative facts” conform to the same pattern; truth seems to be vanishing under a tidal wave of conflicting accounts of what is real. And why not? In a world of no higher authority than ourselves, truth must inevitably dissolve into mere opinion, facts evaporate into mere feelings.

But the incarnation banishes forever the possibility that we live in that kind of world. Jesus is God’s eternal Word, become flesh; there is an eternal, all-knowing God, who is not just in possession of all facts but is truth, fact-ness, himself. And this God has entered our world and made himself, and real truth, known. Not for nothing did the Apostle John say that Jesus was full of grace and truth.

Fourth, it requires that humility and love, not pride and power, are the essential virtues by which mankind is measured. In the pre-Christian world, power and goodness were virtually synonymous. The vanquished, the destitute and the weak were by definition morally unworthy; they deserved all that was coming to them. And we are seeing something of a return to this too, in our world in which relative possession of power often seems the only metric by which justice is to be measured, and self-esteem and self-belief the crowning virtues taught to the young.

But if the infinitely high God has (in the Apostle Paul’s words) “emptied himself” and “taken the form of a slave”, by lowering himself to our level in Mary’s womb, and done so for the benefit of people infinitely lower than his eternal divine glory, then the value system of humanity is turned upside-down. A world into which God has entered as a man is a world in which weakness is true greatness, and self-giving love is true glory. How our world needs to hear that.

We want the first four implications of the incarnation while rejecting the thing itself

And finally, the incarnation does all these things by showing us that true humanity is about knowing God, not fulfilling ourselves. If God entered our world as a baby in Bethlehem, then God must have made our world for the purpose of becoming a baby in Bethlehem. And thus it demands that we recognise that humanity is not a self-defining, self-advancing, self-worshipping species; or at least, we are not designed to be, and the attempt is doomed to failure. For we were made by God so that God could come to live with us. Christ came down to earth from his heavenly throne in order to bring us back up with him. To make us truly human by turning us humans back to our creator.  

This last, of course, is what the Western secularism of the last two centuries has tried so hard to jettison. We have wanted to make man the measure of all things; to believe that we can hold onto the first four implications of the incarnation while rejecting the thing itself. But we cannot. The crumbling of Western civilization going on apace around us as we end 2021 is, at root, the chickens of secularisation coming home to roost. We can have dignity, equality, humility, and truth if we will accept the God who brought them to us at Christmas; but reject him and we will lose them as well. We will need the Incarnation of the Son of God more in 2022 than we ever have. 

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