Christmas Without Incarnation

Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

Yeah, the Shepherds visiting this baby is a cute story, but is it much more without anything more to it?

This past Christmas I noticed something: a lot of Christians talk about Christmas without talking about the incarnation, at least not in any meaningful way. This can be from conservatives or liberals (usually the terms theologically, not politically). For conservatives, it most often appears by way of talking about the incarnation as nothing more than a first step in getting to the cross where the real work happens. That’s a problem. The cross was a big part of what the earliest Christians wrote down as “the Gospel” but there’s a lot of other stuff in there, too.

I’m going to focus on the liberal side today, though. Liberals do this more by abstracting away the Christmas narrative into a good inspirational story. To be clear, there are a lot of important details in the Gospels about the birth of Jesus that provide important social commentary. The shepherds being included is a big deal because they were generally not welcome in the upper echelons of society, much like we look down on many blue-collar professions today. The magi were from farther East – probably something like modern day Iran – and were astrologers, a profession explicitly forbidden in the Law and probably associated with another religion. Mary was an unwed teenage mother; that would be hard enough in our culture, but it was a lot worse in theirs. Her Magnificat is a beautiful message of freedom. They were forced to travel because of a policy of an oppressive empire. They were forced to travel again as refugees to escape Herod and relied on the generosity of strangers, a particularly poignant point given Syria’s current refugee crisis.

The fact that God chose to enter humanity in this way carries a lot of implications for how we treat our working class, foreigners of other religions, unwed teenage mothers, those oppressed by the empires of our day, those fleeing violence, and generally anybody else in need. But that’s just it: it’s important, at least to me, to maintain that God chose to enter humanity in this way. What happens if we strip out the incarnation? It is a great story, like many other great stories that carry strong moral imperatives. It may even be fairly unique for ancient narratives – not many other tales told by the oppressed have survived and thrived like the Bible. But that’s it.

That lacks a certain impact to me. Maybe for some people that is enough to convince you to be a great humanitarian and that’s all you’re looking for out of the Christmas story. It’s not enough for me. I’m too apathetic otherwise. Christmas without the incarnation is like a good documentary. I can learn a few things and support in principle a good cause, but hearing one good story is probably not enough to make me really care enough to actually spend my time doing something about it.

The Incarnation adds that something special in a huge way. This isn’t just a good story with some social justice themes that we repeat each year because we’ve always repeated it each year. It also isn’t a boring but necessary step to get to the cross. This is God becoming human. If you’ve grown up hearing that, maybe you don’t think that’s a big deal anymore, but again, this is the all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe giving up everything to become a little baby. Not a royal baby living in luxury and ruling with an iron fist. A peasant baby to an unwed mother, worshipped first by the outcasts. This peasant baby continued to live and love on the margins. If we believe that Jesus is God, that is a much more powerful story with wide-reaching applications, more than if Jesus was just one of many good people throughout history with some inspirational mythology around his birth. That Jesus still lives, and that Jesus invites us to join in his vision of a Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven. That vision started breaking in on that incarnation day.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.