By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
This is the time of year when Christians look back to the beginning, to the birth of a child in a small village under Roman rule that marked the beginning of their way of life.
The mystery of incarnation, as it’s called in Christian theology, expresses the basic message of the faith: God created humankind and loved it so much that he allowed his son, Jesus, to become human in order to save it.
To some outside the Christian tradition the incarnation might seem fantastical and mythological, due in no small part to the poverty of explanations offered by the faithful in accounting for their beliefs.
The idea of a god becoming authentically human is unique among major world religions. To some, it’s even anathema.
As the faithful throughout Northeast Mississippi approach Christmas, the holiday when they remember the historical moment of the incarnation, area ministers offered their thoughts about the theology of God becoming human and its meaning for Christian life.
Intimacy with creation
Christianity isn’t alone among world religions in depicting deities taking on human form. In Hinduism, Krishna, whose cult has spawned a devotion of its own, as well as the androgynous, humanoid Shiva, are good examples. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings incarnated – or reincarnated – to lead others to enlightenment.
Unlike incarnation in Buddhism and Hinduism, however, where the body serves mostly as a useful vehicle for deities, Christianity is unique in its assertion that God actually became human in Jesus of Nazareth, human in a full, organic sense – psychologically, physiologically and developmentally.
The ancient creeds of the church assert that Jesus was fully God and fully man.
“This was not a game, not a pretense or a disguise,” said the Rev. Neil Davis, pastor of Blue Springs Baptist Church in Union County.
“The belief that Jesus simply appeared to be human is heresy – that’s Gnosticism,” said the Rev. Sandra Sisson, who since retiring has been filling the pulpit at Okolona Presbyterian Church.
The idea that God would condescend to become human made no sense to the ancient world, and it’s still considered heretical by Jews and Muslims.
In Sunday school Christian children learn that Jesus was born in order to save humankind, but that answer doesn’t quite satisfy the adult intellect. Many have asked why God couldn’t create and save humankind from a distance. Why was it necessary for Jesus to become human?
According to Davis, the answer lies in the shared nature between God and humanity, a nature to which the Bible alludes when it says that humans were created in the “image and likeness of God.”
“The Christian God is personal, not remote and distant,” said Davis. “God is a god for us.”
One of the innovations of Judaism and, later, Christianity was that God was intimately connected with creation.
“God was there from the very beginning, close, walking along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all the forefathers,” said Sisson.
That’s very different from the relationship between the gods and humanity in religions of Babylon and Egypt. The distance between the gods and humanity in those religions echoes in some passages of the Bible, as in Hebrews 2, which asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him.”
The God of the Bible is deeply involved in history and the daily affairs of humanity, and God’s care is primarily parental, not juridical.
“This suggests a bond that goes beyond that of a thing and its maker, like an inventor,” said Sisson.
“It tells us that God embraces us in a special way, and gives us a hint as to why Jesus had to become one of us.”
Some theologians have said that God “drew near” to creation in the person of Jesus. This expression, they feel, relates the intimacy that characterizes God’s relationship with humankind.
It’s one thing to assert that God became human and lived on earth for 33 years, but it’s quite another to develop some explanation as to how and why it might have happened.
The early Christian church wrestled with philosophical formulas to try to explain how divinity and humanity could coexist in one being.
Over the centuries, bad Christian theology has resorted to purely mythological explanations, laying the reason for the incarnation at the feet of piety and not pushing deeper, failing to examining what it might mean for humanity and divinity to reside so closely together.
For the Rev. Tim Murphy, it makes as much sense to start one’s search for an explanation from below as from above.
The incarnation, according to the pastor at St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc, is a powerful but often overlooked statement about the goodness and worth of humanity.
“What is humankind?” Murphy said, paraphrasing the line from Hebrews. “A dialogue partner with God. As the pinnacle of creation, humankind is the moment when God’s creation opens its eyes upon itself and responds with love.”
Man is the being who in every instance is thrown beyond himself in understanding, always reaching and asking, searching for meaning, Murphy said.
“God offers Godself in grace, and humanity is called to respond,” he said.
Perhaps the best way to understand the incarnation, Murphy said, is to see Jesus as God’s example to humanity of how to respond fully and completely to the invitation of grace.
“He had to be fully human in order to respond in a meaningful way, else it would have been a robotic response,” said Murphy.
The incarnation says as much about humanity as about divinity, Murphy added. Theology and anthropology are complimentary disciplines. God is always reaching out – or down, as it were – toward creation, and man is always reaching up, responding in love to God’s call. Humanity and divinity are linked in a kind of existential call and response.
“Jesus was the perfect human, the icon of fully realized humanity, the best of what we were created to be,” said Murphy. “He is the fullness of God’s call, and the fullness of man’s response.”
“This is the wonderful, beautiful humanity of Jesus that we haven’t always honored so well,” said Sisson. “This is the man who cried out, so humanly, from the cross, ‘Why have you forsaken me.?’”
“It’s Hebrews 4: 14-16,” said Davis. “The God who, at least in experience, wanted to understand what true thirst was.”
All theology, Sisson cautioned, is speculative. All is analogous. Human concepts can never fully explain divine realities.
Jesus’ divinity, as the third person of the Trinity, Murphy said, is related in some mysterious way to his perfected humanity, perhaps in a way, he said, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul, which “cannot be grasped.”
“It takes faith, which ultimately goes beyond our ability to explain. Even if God gave us the science, so to speak, we wouldn’t get it,” said Davis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the event, nor does it excuse us from trying to offer a reasonable explanation.
“This is what we celebrate at Christmas,” said Sisson. “In Jesus, God is no longer other. God is us.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or