What is Incarnation?

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The Christian celebration of Christmas is all about incarnation. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it means (in the Flesh). It’s the notion that non-physical reality manifests itself in the material world. Christians talk about God coming to the world enrobed in humanity and this is depicted in the story of Jesus. Enter the pregnant virgin, a hotel without capacity and a magical star that brings people together for a surprisingly humble starting point for a king within a feeding trough. The Christmas story is the world’s most famous story about incarnation, but it is not the only one. This idea has not only appeared in other faith systems, but it is engrained in every atom of the universe.

Churches all across this country will take time to focus on proving the historical accuracy of nativity story. For them, the truer this 2000 year old story, the more likely a modern person is to believe it. I’m no longer convinced that is the best path, for me, the issue is not historical accuracy. It really doesn’t matter how many scholars agree. It doesn’t matter if we can trace the star back through astrological data. While the modern mind might find it interesting to learn about ancient history through archaeology that validates the biblical texts, these all fail to relocate the incarnation into the soul of the person.

Incarnation must be experienced, not studied. It is not an argument to win, nor a position to defend, it is an experienced or it is powerless.

The encouragement I would like to offer modern Christianity is to no longer truncate the incarnation into a small, particular container of the historical Jesus story of 2000 years ago. You see, no one living today has ever met Jesus in person. Every possible experience a modern person has ever had with Jesus has been “virtual.” The only Jesus people know today is the incarnate experience”, not mental agreement to historical data.

This is where it gets interesting.

Because the church has almost exclusively focused on one particular expression of the incarnation, it conveniently divides people up into two categories based upon their mental attestation to this historical story. Unfortunately, because the incarnation has been truncated in this way, the church does not recognize nor validate other incarnation experiences. This greatly limits the worlds ability to see incarnation in all of its diverse expressions.

For example, when we say that the incarnation is God in the flesh we are not just talking about the particular story of Jesus being both a man and God. We are also saying in a general sense that non-physical reality has made its way into the material world. Incarnation is not a contest between the particular and the universal, it is the marriage of the two.

If we grasp this, then the world dramatically changes and our incarnation experiences potentiate radically. This means that the experience of God in the flesh emerges from behind all things.

  • The idea for a new business, service or product.
  • The inspiration to overcome challenges or struggles.
  • The impetus to connect or reconnect with others.
  • The elation that comes from that song at just the right time.
  • The clarity that emerged during a difficult time.
  • When the sun warms more than our bodies.
  • The sense that nothing is missing from a moment.
  • When the love of two people begets a life.

Any movement between the abstract and the concrete, or the non-physical and the material is an expression of incarnation. Incarnation is God coming to us or through us in AND as our very life.

This means that all humanity experiences the incarnation. Not just Christians.

Now I know some of my devout audience will sort of bristle at this at first. So let me add a biblical justification for those who need to see this through that particular lens. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 that he doesn’t want us to be ignorant and then he goes on to tell his Jewish listeners that the thing that sustained their ancestors (the rock that poured out water in the desert) was Christ.

Abraham is said to be a man of tremendous faith (Hebrews 11) because he believed God. The promise (non-physical) became his son Isaac (material). Abraham was not a Christian. He existed long before Judaism had any laws or was even formed. He was just a man with faith, like so many today. The incarnation was coming then, it was experienced over an over throughout human history and within sacred text, it was typified in Jesus, and it continues every moment, everywhere, everyday.

This shouldn’t be surprising. We are made in God’s likeness, we are breathed in by God (Genesis 2:7), or the spirit of God animates us.

For my Christian brothers and sisters, I hope you will take the particular incarnation story and begin to widen your lens to see just how many ways this story has been told in the universal sense. By doing so you will begin to recognize and validate the work of God in others and the world.

For my brothers and sisters who do not share the Christian faith as it is typically defined, I hope you will appreciate the work of incarnation in your own lives and in the world and that you will take seriously the particular story of Jesus. By doing so you will begin to recognize and validate the work of God in others and the world.

May you take the incarnation of Christmas to every moment of your life.