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The Mystery of the Incarnation

From left to right: "Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne" (1260/1280). Byzantine, at the National Gallery of Art.; "Virgin and Child" by Fra Angelico (1428–1430). Italian.; "Madonna and Child" by Giovanni Bellini (late 1480s). Italian, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: IMB

I must confess a possibly unpopular opinion. I love fantasy in various media - books, video games, and movies - but I've never really liked Lord of the Rings all that much. Such a perspective, from a fan of fantasy and a Christian, is bound to be unpopular with some of my readers, but hear me out! Tolkien is a master at crafting a cohesive and coherent fantasy world with a rich culture and history. He is a master storyteller. My only problem with his fantasy world is this: it is a closed world.

What I mean by "closed" is that Tolkien, in an incredible feat of creativity, wrote a fantasy world that leaves few questions unanswered. His collection of mythical stories, The Silmarillion, explains how Middle Earth came to be, and if you've ever tried to read The Lord of the Rings, you know that he explains the history of Middle Earth in meticulous detail. Few stones are left unturned. Most importantly, the lore and rules of the world of The Lord of the Rings is set, with little allowance for creative license from other authors. For this reason, The Lord of the Rings doesn't lend itself well to expansive fan content of other fantasy worlds like Star Wars. In other words, there's little mystery in The Lord of the Rings.

This concept, often called world-building, is key to any fantasy world in which a narrative takes place. If that world works according to rules that are different from the real world, then these rules can be made more or less explicit. Since the narrator of The Lord of the Rings is omniscient, he knows much more than the characters about the world that they inhabit. If the narrator were not omniscient (let's say that the narrative has a third-person limited perspective), then he would have a perspective closer to that of real human beings that embody their world and context. Because of this closer resemblance to the world as we experience it, I usually prefer that more limited perspective to the one adopted by Tolkien. Fantasy worlds such as those in Star Wars, The Witcher, and Dark Souls (a video game franchise) are much more interesting to me for this reason. They are expansive worlds with open-ended lore that remain coherent while allowing for mystery and wonder.

What does this introduction on fantasy storytelling have to do with the incarnation? Every Christmas, Christians around the world celebrate a doctrine that, at face value, is absurd. The incarnation is the doctrine that claims that in the man Jesus Christ, we find the conjunction of a divine and human nature. Jesus is the God whose hand you can shake. He's the God who nursed at the breast of His mother, Mary. He's the God who spent years working with His father in the family business: carpentry. He's the God who sweat, ate, slept, drank, wept, and laughed. But how is this possible? How can one Being at one time embody attributes that contradict each other? How can one Being be both eternal and temporal, physical and non-physical, infinite and finite?

Christians through the ages have carefully considered these questions. In the Chalcedonian Creed, adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the authors of the creed attempted to define in precise terms what the doctrine of the incarnation required. Here is the creed in full:

"We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us."

The language expressed in this creed is key for understanding the issues which were up for debate in the midst of the controversy over the incarnation that occasioned the council. What's important for our purposes is to notice that the creed affirms that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures. Those two natures are distinct, and Jesus Christ has them in full. This makes sense in light of the fact that Jesus accepts worship, and only God is worthy of worship. In Anselm of Canterbury's book, Cur Deus Homo? (in English, Why the God-Man?), written from 1094-1098, Anselm argued that the incarnation was necessary for the atonement to be carried out. Without true deity, Jesus could not have died for all sins at all times. Without true humanity, Jesus could not have been the appropriate sacrifice, since only a human being could have died for other human beings as the appropriate substitutionary sacrifice for sins.

These were ancient and medieval attempts to understand the incarnation and explicate it precisely, but it does little to diminish the initial shock that such a doctrine could be true. If anything, the Chalcedonian Creed sets out the "guardrails" for one's understanding of the incarnation; it doesn't precisely set out exactly how it is that the two natures could be joined in one person, Jesus of Nazareth. Some heretics, such as the Gnostics, because of this denied the reality of the incarnation, arguing that Jesus could not have been truly human.

As I reflect on this doctrine during the Christmas season, what strikes me is the mystery of it. I often describe God as a narrative God. He is the One who writes narrative from history. The great proclamations of the early verses of the gospels of Matthew and Luke to the miraculous birth of Jesus are expressions of how unexpected this invasion of God into the material world is. The question that preoccupied the minds of the Israelites and Jews was this: how is it that God could come to dwell with an unholy people? The answer, given to them by God, was the temple and a complex system for approaching the Lord. Yet, in Christ, there is no need for the temple. In Ezra-Nehemiah, the book of the Bible that records the return of the Judeans from captivity in Babylon, there is no record of the glory of the Lord returning to settle on the newly-built temple. Yet, as John 1:14 tells us, the disciples beheld the glory of the Lord in Christ far from Jerusalem, in the region of Galilee. The whole of the story of the incarnation is a subverting of expectations. Where God is to be found in the temple, He is not there because of the idolatrous sin of His people. Where He can be found is in the dusty village of Nazareth, a first-century peasant making ends meet with His father in an old workshop, preparing for His ministry of reconciliation to God that will be offered to all people.

Some would complain that we have no clear explanation for the incarnation. They might even claim that the doctrine is incoherent. While models of the incarnation have an apologetic use here, I might also ask the skeptic to consider whether the conceptual difficulty of the incarnation is part of the point. What the Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, described as paradoxical in faith was belief in the apparently absurd notion that God could become man without losing His deity. Conceptual clarity can be added to this claim, but not all questions will likely be answered. Could that be an indication that a God much greater than us is at work, that we simply lack the conceptual resources to comprehend fully what was revealed to us? Such a world is consistent with a world filled with wonder and mystery, a world created by God and in which we find ourselves often grasping for words to describe its reality.

The incarnation reminds me that I am limited, that God is much higher than me and has created a world difficult for me to understand fully. He is the God whose wonder and majesty injects it into the world He has made. The incarnation is a wonderful representation of this truth, and I've always appreciated fantasy worlds that can mirror reality in that way.

Thanks for reading! This was intended as a short essay in which I share some of how I've been meditating on the incarnation during this Christmas season. Christmas is the time in which Christians meditate on this awesome mystery revealed to humanity in the birth of Christ. If you are reading this and are not a Christian, I hope that you find in this short essay something to ponder as you consider the truth for yourself. If you enjoy the content on this blog, please feel free to share and subscribe, so that you'll be notified when new posts go up!


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