In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
When I read those words, I can hear the deep Scottish voice of my former headmaster, echoing through the Glaswegian parish church where I and my fellow pupils gathered for our annual Christmas carol service. As best I can tell, neither he nor I were believers at the time, but I still remember that his reading of John’s prologue (which he insisted on) never failed to give me chills. Even to our unregenerate minds, the inspired text communicated something of the wonder of the incarnation.
Now that I’ve grown in my theological understanding and spiritual maturity, the wonder and mystery of the incarnation seem greater than ever to me. Yet surely I’m not alone in finding familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least neglect. Christmas rolls around again, and the combination of busyness and repetition conspire to dampen our appreciation of the incredible story.
Here’s a modest attempt to revive our wonder at the mystery of Christmas—indeed, not just for one but for three Christmas mysteries.
1. The Incarnation of God the Son
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)
“The Word became flesh.” Those four words can sound so familiar to us that we fail to appreciate the magnitude of John’s statement (echoed by the other New Testament writers). The divine (v. 1) became human (v. 14). The infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Son of God took on a human nature: finite, limited in power, limited in knowledge, limited in space and time. It’s one thing to claim God would ever do such a thing. It’s yet another to suppose God could ever do such a thing—that he could clothe himself with frail humanity, veiling his divine glory without relinquishing for one moment any aspect of his divine nature. The Danish Lutheran philosopher Søren Kierkegaard referred to the incarnation as the “absolute paradox” of the Christian faith. How could the eternal inhabit the temporal? How could the finite accommodate the infinite?
We may not know how this mystery could be reality, but by the testimony of inspired Scripture we know with certainty (Luke 1:4) it was and is reality. This is a mystery of the first order.
Science fiction writers like to speculate about cataclysmic events with the potential to “rupture the space-time continuum.” I confess I’m not sure what that means, but I suspect that if anything might threaten such a rupture, it would be the incarnation of God! And yet, as we’ll consider next, when that divine-human child was born it caused barely a ripple on the surface of the world.
2. The Humiliation of God the Son
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God . . . made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. (Phil. 2:6–7)
It’s a further mystery that this God-man would live a life of obscurity, poverty, and suffering. Who would have predicted that? Surely if the Creator-King of the universe were to visit us in human form, his coming would be trumpeted from the highest heavens, heralded on every street corner, and accompanied with all pomp and ceremony.
Perish the thought that God would begin his human life as a fetus in the womb of an unmarried peasant girl; that he would spend most of that life laboring unrecognized as a woodworker in a two-bit Middle Eastern town; that he would conduct his ministry without home, family, and possessions; that he would be opposed by conservative theologians and dismissed as a fraud, a drunkard, an insurrectionist, a blasphemer, even a Satanist (Matt. 10:25; 12:24).
God forbid that God should suffer such humiliation!
Yet we know from inspired Scripture that this is exactly what happened. This is mystery upon mystery.
3. The Crucifixion of God the Son
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:8)
Here is the crowning mystery: the Son of God lived to die. The ultimate reason he was born as a man was to die as a man (Heb. 2:14–17).
This fact is clear from the four Gospels, which devote a full third of their content to the week of Jesus’s death. It’s clear from Jesus’s own statements throughout his ministry, not least on his final journey up to Jerusalem. It’s clear even from the name given him at birth (Matt. 1:21). The destiny of the God-man was to die—and not just any death, but a shameful criminal’s death on a Roman cross. Could anything be more incredible?
Perhaps only this: The God-man died for me.
And also for you, I trust. The incarnate Son of God died to pay the penalty for our sins and to bring us near to God forevermore.
Charles Wesley’s famous hymn captures something of the wonder:
And can it be that
I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Can it be? Yes—he died. Yes—he died for me. Hallelujah! This is mystery upon mystery upon mystery.
Talking with Neighbors
Some would argue such theological mysteries are an embarrassing obstacle for the Christian gospel in our modern, scientific, rationalistic age. What reasonable person could accept doctrines that seem to defy reason? This concern could be addressed in a number of ways—some theological, some philosophical—but what may seem to be a vice could well turn out to be a virtue.
Should we be so pessimistic about whether such mysteries can appeal to our 21st-century secular neighbors? We live in a scientific age, yes, but also at a time when people are rapidly losing faith in the power of science to solve their problems and satisfy their longings.
Although the acids of modernism and postmodernism have corroded any ready acceptance of the supernatural, it seems many Western unbelievers are deeply dissatisfied with the assumption that there’s nothing beyond the space-time universe. There is a longing for transcendence—not a distant, detached transcendence, but one that intersects and penetrates our very lives. And besides, if there were to be an invasion of the immanent by the transcendent, all for the salvation of sinners, would we not expect it to be mysterious, to defy human comprehension? Such mystery would be a mark of reality, not human invention.
So let us wonder again at these Christmas mysteries—but more than that, let us celebrate and proclaim them to a lost and thirsty world.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Reformed Theological Seminary’s Ministry & Leadership magazine.