Tony Jones has introduced another round of his progressive God-blogger challenge. His topic this time: Why an incarnation?
That’s a terrific topic, and I want to write something new in response. But first let me re-post a piece from almost two years ago. This was originally published just before Epiphany in 2011, and it’s my best attempt at directly addressing Tony’s question.
“Why an incarnation?” Here, I think, is why:
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For an illustration of what we Christians celebrate on Epiphany, think of the movie Freaky Friday. Either one will do — the original with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris or the remake with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Neither is really a great movie, but they’re both memorable and entertaining. The story is one we seem to like a lot, since we retell it with slight variations every couple of years in movie after movie. In Freaky Friday, a mother and daughter switch places — switch bodies, actually. How this happens isn’t really the point. The story isn’t about the dynamics of body-switching, it’s about the empathy and understanding that come from inhabiting another person’s life. That understanding is a kind of epiphany, but it doesn’t come instantaneously. Barbara Harris’ first thought is not “Ah, so now at last I understand my teenage daughter,” but rather, “Good grief, what am I doing here?”
Gradually, though, that understanding is revealed. It takes time to unfold, just as the Epiphany we Christians celebrate around January 6 took time to fully reveal itself, not just in a single night but over the course of 33 years or so. The incomprehensible was made into something we could grasp, something like us that we could understand.
That’s what’s going on in the Christmas story, in all those creches and mangers on the mantle. It’s a response, a resolution, to the impasse at the end of the book of Job.
If you’ve ever read Job, you’re familiar with the frustrating ending of that story. Not the tacked-on happy ending spelled out by the Greek-chorus narrator in the epilogue, but the actual ending to the story’s central argument.
“Life seems pretty unfair and bewildering to us humans,” Job says.
“Well,” God replies, “you’re just going to have to trust me.”
“But you don’t understand what it’s like to be us,” Job says. “You don’t understand how all this looks from our point of view.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t understand how it looks from my point of view, either,” God says. “One of us loosed the cords of Orion and laid the foundation of the earth and the last time I checked, it wasn’t you. So just trust me, OK? I’ve got this.”
And that’s the end of the conversation. Nobody wins the argument and nobody loses. It just kind of stops. An impasse.
Epiphany breaks through that impasse. The mutual incomprehension gets resolved through incarnation. In the words of the Hooters, “What if God was one of us?”
God’s point back in Job is well-taken. The creator of ostriches and sea monsters and the horsehead nebula is simply beyond us, beyond our ability to grasp or apprehend. But a person — a human being just like us — that we can understand and relate to and comprehend. Maybe we’ll never be able to understand everything there is to know about God, but maybe we could be shown everything we need to know.
But also — and here’s a wonderful part of the story we too often forget — the epiphany that unfolds from this freaky incarnation works both ways. If the person and the life of Jesus Christ taught us humans everything we need to know about God, that life also taught God what it is like to be one of us.
Some Christians balk at this notion of God learning. An almighty and omniscient being, they say, doesn’t need to learn. But this is part of the story. The story tells us this happened too.
“Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house,” the messenger tells Job. “And suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep.
That’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible, but there’s an awful lot packed into those two words. Jesus loved to visit his dear friends Mary and Martha in the house of the poor, where he’d play with their kid brother, delighting him by doing something Jesus almost never did. As a rule, Jesus didn’t give names to the characters in his stories. His parables told of “a certain shepherd,” or “a Samaritan,” or “two brothers,” but they didn’t have names. Yet in one story, Jesus decided to give one character — the hero of the story — a name.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man,” Jesus said, beginning another story for another huge crowd. Then he looked over at the kid brother with a twinkle in his eye, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.”
How cool would that be for a kid?
But then Lazarus got sick and then, like Job’s children, Lazarus died. And when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then God Almighty — God who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements when the morning stars sang together, God who commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place, God who bound the chains of the Pleiades and loosed the cords of Orion — wept.
That’s an epiphany.