I understand why the commercialisation of Christmas bothers people. However, what concerns me more is the tendency within the church to treat the Incarnation as a beginner’s doctrine: a nice opportunity to do something for the children and invite our friends to church. If we give it a couple of weeks and have the appropriate services, then we can get back to the stuff of spiritual maturity.
What is the stuff of mature Christianity? The answer to that question probably depends on the individual. For some it is about academic rigour and preparation for high level intellectual debate. For others it is about sophisticated theological reflection. Some will dismiss the heavy thinking and head toward a pursuit of personal spirituality, while others will pragmatically run into the busy work of life and ministry. There is great merit in each of these paths, but we should be wary of leaving behind thoughts of the Incarnation as if we have grown beyond it.
At the core of the Christian faith is the wonderfully good news of who God really is. We live in a world turned upside-down by the Fall and so we struggle to see spiritual reality. Too easily we trust common sense and all its assumptions about God. Thankfully, God has not left us to speculate. He has wonderfully stepped into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, who makes the Father known to us.
In fact, the whole story of everything could be considered in terms of three wonderful unions.
First, there is the beautiful union of God: Father and Son bound together in glorious, selfless love by the Holy Spirit. Tour the planet and survey history, you will never find a god that comes anywhere near to the beauty and wonder of the one true God! As Richard Sibbes explained, out of the spreading goodness of that beautiful communion came creation and, subsequently, redemption.
Second, there is the remarkable union of God and man in the Incarnation. God the Son took on flesh and dwelt among us – to make God known, to draw people to Him, and to take away the sin of the world. It has been said many times, but you need Christmas to get to Easter. Angels scratch their heads in wonder, and so should we.
Third comes the breath-taking union between Christ and his church. Because he came, because he died and lives again, because of the atonement, we are now invited to have union with Christ. Not just to have our sins forgiven (which alone would be wonderful), but also to be given new hearts and united to Christ by the Spirit God has now given to us.
Salvation would be mere legal pardon from a benevolent deity if it weren’t for the wonder of these three unions – God and God, then God and man, now us and God. Beautiful. Remarkable. Breath-taking.
Martin Luther isn’t known for pulling his punches. He had grown up and taught in a system that was all about Christ-less speculation. In his later commentary on Galatians he offered a warning against putting Christ to one side and clambering into heaven to speculate about the power, majesty and wisdom of God. Instead, Luther urges us toward “true Christian theology” – that is, going in our thoughts to the virgin’s womb, to the manger, to the child nursing.
For this purpose He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty.1
Luther was in no way denying the majesty and power of God, he just knew that we couldn’t bear it apart from Christ. So what happens when we fix the gaze of our hearts on Christ?
When you do this, you will see the love, the goodness, and the sweetness of God. You will see His wisdom, His power, and His majesty sweetened and mitigated to your ability to stand it. And in this lovely picture you will find everything, as Paul says to the Colossians, “In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3); and “in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9).
All other religions begin “at the top,” but Christianity begins “at the bottom.” Instead of engaging in a supposedly mature speculation about God and focusing on both our ability to think well and act right, Luther continues:
…you must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace this Infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him—born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things. In this way you can shake off all terrors and errors, as the sun dispels the clouds.
I recently had the privilege of writing Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation. It is a light, and hopefully an engaging read. I hope it will point people to the wonder of the Incarnation and a Christianity that remains fixed on Christ. As we head toward another Christmas and then look beyond it, let’s prayerfully ask God that we might not leave it behind and lose the sheer delight of the Incarnation!
1. Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, 1535, LW26:28-30