On Incarnation

Sunday 28th December 2008
Year B, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Luke 2:22
Luke 2:39-40

Other than the first two Chapters of Matthew and Luke, we know nothing about the childhood of Jesus and most of this material concerns the lead-up to the birth, the birth itself and a few years after it; then there is the account of the 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem; and, for all the rest of the first 30 years, there are two verses which we have just heard. Interestingly, the early church was so suspicious of the ancient world's traditional practice of beginning hagiographies with accounts of childhood precocity, and even miraculous powers, that this material was cut out of what came to be the New Testament; conversely, what the church valued were accounts dominated by the Passion narrative.

I suspect, however, that our own culture has very different ideas about the way biography should be constructed because we live in a post Freudian age where we think that childhood makes the adult; and here we come right up against the theology of the incarnation expressed in the "two natures, one person" formulation; that Jesus was both God and human. There is no room here for psychological development. The formulation took hundreds of years to crystalise and although it is an heroic attempt to put a mystery into language it doesn't get us very far with the question: how far did the childhood of Jesus affect his adult behaviour and how far was his divinity such that, for example, his sinlessness over-rode his human inclinations? For here we are in a serious bind because what we  must not do is to exalt the divine nature above the human nature; They cannot be ranked. We cannot say, surely, that every time Jesus felt like sinning because of his flawed human nature his divine nature kicked in to stop him. We might then want to say that Jesus, uniquely except for Mary, had such a perfect human nature that he was never inclined to sin which would lead us to ask whether he really did have a human nature at all in respect of his decision-making. We might want to say that Jesus was human insomuch as he needed oxygen, food and drink, that his senses worked fully, that he felt pain, but that would not be enough to justify the formulation: "Truly divine and truly human".

Now all this may sound terribly abstruse but it makes us ask ourselves what we are celebrating which began last Thursday, what we mean by this phenomenon which we blithely sum up in the term incarnation. We surely mean more than the literal word enflesh but the question we might want to ponder is "how human?" or, to put it another way, what do we mean by "fully human"?

I think the way to approach this is to think of ourselves as human and to see what we are really like, not individually but collectively; what makes us what we are. We might immediately think, at the functional level, that we are creatures of language, of pattern recognition and response, that we are social creatures; but at a spiritual level there is a deep division amongst Christians about what we are. My contention is that we were created to do good and that it is in our nature to do good so that to have a perfect human nature would be to do good perfectly. There are those who believe the opposite, that we are fundamentally evil, and that, therefore Jesus got a major dispensation from corrupt humanity. If we accept the positive view then there is no problem with the human nature of Jesus, he was what we aspire, by his Grace, to be. If, however, humanity is fundamentally corrupt, it is difficult to argue that Jesus had a human nature as opposed to a dispensation from it.

The mystery we are considering, then, is not the mechanics of incarnation, how Jesus managed to have these two natures in one person, but why. Not for the first time, theologians have got entangled in mechanics rather than purposes. And it is the "why" that we are celebrating. Jesus became one of us to affirm the integrity of our humanity in spite of our weakness because of which we killed him. We are celebrating the reality that there is nothing we can do which will curtail God's love. When the priest says at the beginning of the wedding service: "God is love", that is what he means. Because we were created as imperfect so that we can exercise choice our imperfection will not be held against us. What we are celebrating is, literally, God with us; and what we need to hold fast to is how close we can get, with God's grace, to a state of perfection. This is not to deny the existence of evil; we only have to look around the world to see how much evil there is; and we might reflect that there are some people who denounce God in a terribly deliberate and catastrophic way and people that embrace god in a terrifyingly direct and glorious way; but most of us aren't like Hitler or st. Francis of Assisi; for most of us there is a remarkably narrow margin between taking another step towards God and another step away. We all know people who appear not to have done anything seriously wrong in their lives. They might have been secret demons but we doubt it. Then there are the majority of us who are pretty straight up and down and whose major sins are of omission; and when you add both these classes together, there isn't much left. Now we could argue that this is because grace keeps us good - and so it does - but the Protestant argument that Grace is some kind of supernatural corrective  is surely taking things too far; why would God have made us wicked and then caused Grace to fix us? It is as if he made us such that we are condemned to be tied to some supernatural drip.

What we are celebrating is the divine affirmation of humanity, a re-telling of the mysterious event of creation in our own place and, in terms of how old the earth is, in our own time. What we tend to focus on is the helplessness of the baby but that tends to sentimentalise the event, for whatever the starting point, what matters is the affirmation of the Passion and the triumph of the Resurrection. Take away all the theological accretion and the worldly surface and what we are left with is the reality of our own state as creatures born to realise god's kingdom on earth and then to be realised in God's kingdom of love.