The Incarnation: God With Us and We With God
Familiarity with the events of Christmas can sometimes make us dull to the wonder and majesty of what happened that night. The weakness, of course, is in us, not in the events surrounding the Word taking on flesh and dwelling among us; that is the most powerful, significant, and wonderful event in history.
In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God took on flesh, and so united in one person God and man “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation,”1 and so now and forever, man and God are united in the person of Jesus Christ. The one through whom and in whom all things were created took upon himself our human nature to connect God and man who are separated by sin.
Only the Son of God could save and recreate humanity from its sin and corruption, because he was the one through whom and in whom all things were created; only the Son could save those made in the image of God, because he is the image of God, the exact imprint of his nature; only the Son could raise up mortal flesh to be immortal, because he alone is Life itself. But since man still owed God all that was required, and was under his curse and wrath, no one but a human could give what was necessary. The incarnation means that in Jesus Christ humanity has been rescued because he is the Re-creator, Life-giver, the man in our place, the mediator between God and man. As Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, says, “Being the Word of the Father and above all, he alone consequently was both able to recreate the universe and was worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to intercede for all before the Father” and by “condescending towards us in his love for human beings” he takes what is ours so that “as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire.”2
God With Us, We With God
For most of us the Cross of Christ is the central focus, and this is not wrong. But we should also put alongside the Cross his incarnation. Saint Athanasius helps us to see the glory of the incarnation and what it means for us. For Saint Athanasius the incarnation was central in our salvation. At the cross, Christ took our sin and once and for all paid the price, and we then receive his righteousness. This is a gracious, amazing exchange. Yet there is an exchange closely connected with this that flows from the fact of the incarnation. When Christ became man, he took what was ours, and so purified it so that it was fit for fellowship with God, but we also received what was God’s, and so became ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1.4). In the incarnation, the Word’s becoming flesh (John 1.14), made humanity fit for eternal communion with God, and at the same time enabled humanity to participate in the life of God.3
In the incarnation, God is truly with us. God has visited us, coming with grace and mercy, delivering us from sin and corruption; he has come to ‘ransom captive Israel’, to free his own “from Satan’s tyranny”, “give them victory o’er the grave”, cheer us by his “drawing nigh”, “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight”, and to “open wide our heav’nly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.”4
But in the incarnation, we are truly with God. By faith in Christ, we have communion and union with God himself. Because the eternal Son of God took on our human nature, we are brought into the Father’s presence, enjoy the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, receive the adoption of sons, and participate in the life of God. This is why Athanasius can remarkably say, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility.”5 In Christ, we behold the glory of God, and are transformed from one degree of glory to another. The mortal puts on immortality; the corrupted puts on incorruptibility; the miserable are made blessed, because the Immortal put on mortality and the Incorruptible took upon himself our corruption, and the Blessed suffered our miseries.
Truly, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2.9). Here is the source of true hope, joy, and love; here is the power to convert, re-create, and bring to life; here is salvation, light, and grace — here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate. Because of the incarnation, we God is with us, but astonishingly, because of the incarnation, we are with God. In the beautiful words of Christopher Wordsworth on the ascension,
You have raised our human nature in the clouds to God’s right hand; There we sit in heavenly places, there with you in glory stand: Jesus reigns, adored by angels, man with God is on the throne; Mighty Lord, in your ascension we by faith behold our own.6
This is the beautiful exchange that takes place in the incarnation. Familiar? Maybe not as much as it should be, but certainly amazing. Because God is with us in Christ, those who are in Christ by faith are with God. That is the wonder of the incarnation.
- The Chalcedonian Definition.
- St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 7-8.
- For those interested, this is often referred to as ‘theōsis‘ or ‘deification’. This does not mean that humanity becomes God, or somehow receives part of his nature. Instead it points to the union and communion between God and his people that Christ brings about in his person through the covenant he has made with us (e.g. 1 Cor 10.16-17 and 2 Pet 1.4 where participation is understood covenantally by the Spirit’s work uniting us to Christ and thereby making us partakers of Christ).
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
- On the Incarnation, 54.
- Christopher Wordsworth, See the Conquerer Mounts in Triumph.