Another Christmas has past, and as we spend the last days of 2011 putting away decorations, returning gifts, and counting down the hours before 2012, it is good for Christians to once again spend time reflecting on the meaning of Christmas, especially after the hoopla of a busy Christmas Day. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, throughout this history, Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.
Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, such as the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, a later 4th century movement that originated with a bishop named Arius also did not hold to a divine understanding of Jesus. But for the most part, the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine.
The problem for many Christians in the first centuries of the Common Era was accepting that Jesus was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?
It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity. In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.
I think two significant obstacles hinder us from accepting Jesus in his humanity. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.
The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.
The key to overcoming this perspective on Jesus is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.
If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, i.e., our bodies, are good. This was the problem with some Christian movements in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.
This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.
But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.
But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God not only took on human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.
If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.