Those poor baby Jesus statues. Does any piece of the Nativity set have as rough and tumble a time? I know of one wooden carving of the Christ child that met an untimely end with a vacuum cleaner. My husband’s Great Aunt Erika has a wax Christkindl, over eighty years old and about the size of a football, that has been a frequent victim of pillow fights and indoor sports. And then there are those tiny bean baby Jesus statues that just disappear without a trace in the yearly shuffle of Christmas decorations, so that the Mary, Joseph and the shepherds seem to be worshipping a comfy pile of straw. Really only the ox and ass are excused from fixing such a rapturous gaze on an infantless manger. But when the infant is there, what are we contemplating?
From the 5th to 7th century AD, theologians discussed how exactly Jesus could be both God and human. There was no precedent for the phenomenon of the Incarnation, and so it was confusing to describe it. Is Jesus a kind of fusion of divinity and humanity, blended together like an alloy of two metals? Is he actually a double subject, a divine person (God) and a human person (Jesus) that team up like a fork and knife? Both of these ideas were discussed at length, but ultimately dismissed.
Several hundred years of careful conversation about Scriptural interpretation, the meaning of certain prayers, the precise definition of terms, and the testimony of early Christian thinkers resulted in the following definition: Jesus Christ is the union of divine and human natures in the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is fully divine and fully human.
This means he has all the characteristics one would expect of divinity – omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, etc., and all the characteristics one would expect of humanity – the ability to cry, eat, grow up, hug his mother, etc. And the second person of the Trinity, often called the “Son” or “Word of God,” possesses these two natures, with all their characteristics. This is the meaning of John’s phrase, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Greek there for “dwelt” is ἐσκήνωσεν, which means, literally, “pitched his tent.” The Son of God took on a human nature, and he became our neighbor. Hey, neighbor.*
What’s beautiful about all this, and why I enjoy studying it, is that these debates are not just theological quibbles with no implications. They contain very good news for us, and if we understand the doctrine, we understand what this good news is. Here are two implications of the identity of the Infant in the Manger:
First, when the Son takes on humanity, he takes on all the things that are essential to that humanity. This means that every aspect of human life can be redeemed. Even crying, eating, growing up, or hugging your mom can be occasions for giving glory to God. You can do every human thing in a holy way. That’s astonishing. It inspires bold, joyful action.
Second, the flip side of this is that the Son of God “became like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And this, too, is good news. If Jesus is fully human, but does not possess sin, this means that sinfulness is not part of being fully human. The Christ Child is a message to us: “Sin is not part of who you are, and so I am going to take it away.” That’s consoling. It inspires hope.
Merry Christmas, all.
*If you find the doctrine of the Incarnation really confusing, Cyril of Alexandria uses a helpful image. When you stick an iron into fire, it becomes hot and glows red. The iron is still iron, and the fire is still fire – they don’t change into something they are not. But they still are united in a way that makes sense for the kind of substances they are.