“Reflecting theologically on the incarnation requires that we consider three topics: (1) the uniqueness of the incarnation in relation to other historical events, (2) the nature of the incarnation, and (3) ends of the incarnation. Following some brief comments on the first two topics, I will focus a bit more fully on the third.”
Christmas (along with Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) is one of five “evangelical feast days” that celebrate key moments in the Son of God’s saving mission. On these days, the church turns its attention in a special way to the redemptive historical events that mark “the fullness of time” (Gal 4.4; Eph 1.10): the time that realizes God’s saving purpose and therefore that decisively determines all other times for the people of God (Rom 6; Col 2.9-10; 3.1-4). As we approach Christmas, it is worth reflecting upon the incarnation, the first epochal moment in the saving mission of the Son of God.
Reflecting theologically on the incarnation requires that we consider three topics: (1) the uniqueness of the incarnation in relation to other historical events, (2) the nature of the incarnation, and (3) ends of the incarnation.
Following some brief comments on the first two topics, I will focus a bit more fully on the third.
(1) The uniqueness of the incarnation
Although the incarnation fulfills various Old Testament promises and prophecies, most notably those related to the Davidic Covenant, the incarnation does not follow from prior historical antecedents. The incarnation is a “new thing,” an event that exists in a class by itself. The incarnation is a mystery, once hidden but now revealed: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3.16).
For this reason, it is (strictly speaking) improper to classify under the label of “incarnation” any events or activities that happened before or after the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (see Todd Billings’s excellent discussion of this point). In a proper sense, there is and only ever will be one incarnation: the incarnation of the Son of God. Though the incarnation opens up new ways of seeing and acting in the world (see Luke 1.46-55), Christmas is not the occasion for launching an “incarnational” social program. Christmas is the glad announcement that God’s saving program has begun in the incarnation and it is the announcement that God’s saving program will be consummated when the incarnate one returns (Heb 9.26, 28).
(2) The nature of the incarnation
The uniqueness of the incarnation follows from the nature of the incarnation. The incarnation is a divine invasion of human history from outside of human history: “I have come down from heaven . . .,” the Lord repeatedly declares (John 6.38; 10.36). Unlike prophets and apostles who are called by God from their mothers’ wombs into their vocations as ambassadors of God’s word (Jer 1.5; Gal 1.15), the eternal Son is sent from the Father’s side into his mother’s womb to assume human nature into union with his divine person: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4.4).
This divine invasion is necessitated by the human race’s impotence to deliver itself from its self-imposed state of sadness and misery, an impotence signified in the fact that a human father has no role to play in Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb (similarly, see Rom 8.3). The incarnation reveals that only God can help us. And the incarnation reveals that God has indeed helped us by stooping down to become one of us. “In Christ two natures met to be thy cure” (George Herbert).