Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The God Who Would Be Man

“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling to himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two very different places.” “Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “it’s inside is bigger than it's outside.” Yes, said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside that was bigger than our whole world.”
—C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle

“The Incarnation is the central miracle asserted by Christians,” C. S. Lewis insisted. “They say that God became a man.”

One of first questions raised by the early church is how did it happen? How did the immortal, eternal Word become flesh? Matthew and Luke explain Jesus’ entry into the world as a virgin birth, or more correctly, a virgin conception, for it was Jesus’ conception and not his birth that was unique.[1] Mary was a normal woman in every way and Jesus’ gestation and birth was normal in every way that matters. But his conception was unique for he had no human father. As the old text puts it, Mary “had known no man.”

Mary herself was concerned with this question, for nothing in her schooling necessarily led her to the expectation that Messiah would be virginal born:[2] “How can this be?” she asked the angel, who then explained, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34, 35). This is a miracle and a mystery.

Every conception, of course, is a miracle. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, no doe a fawn apart from God. But once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with natural process and a long line of descendents. With his naked hand he touched Mary and made a wee bairn who was…well, himself.

Here’s where clinical explanations falter. All we can say is what the first writers said: the child was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). This was inexplicable then as now, and yet was acceptable, a staunch belief enshrined in the earliest creeds.[3] It became part of the minimal faith of new converts. Today it stands at the heart of our faith.

“But does it matter?” you ask. Of course it does. “All this took place,” Matthew informs us, “to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means (Matthew translates), ‘God (is) with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

God is with us. That’s what the virgin birth meant and still means. This is an answer to the old question: Does God care? Does disease, pain, infirmity, handicap and death overwhelm him as much as it does us? Does God weep? Does it matter to him that babies are hooked on drugs and infected by AIDs in utero? Dostoyevsky’s cynic, Ivan, asks of human suffering, “What do the children have to do with it?” Does it matter to God that children suffer?

The answer is the Incarnation, for in this act God entered fully into our suffering. Pain was his lot in the slow ascent from a struggling, kicking embryo to an utterly dependent baby, through gangling, awkward adolescent to become a man—a “man of sorrows.” Through all, he was “acquainted with grief.” “In all our afflictions he was afflicted.” Yes, he understands. He cares like no other.

Dorothy Sayers says it far better than I: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When He was a man, He played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

Jesus’ conception, though one of a kind, is timelessly typical of what is eternally true of God. He “never undoes anything but evil, never does good to undo it again. The union between God and (human) nature in the person of Christ admits no divorce. He will not go out of nature again…”[4] He is, and has always been, Immanuel: “God with us; the God who became just like you and me.


[1] The virgin birth should not be confused with the “Immaculate Conception," the Roman Catholic tradition that Mary was free from original sin, or the “Immaculate Reception,” a Franco Harris catch in a play-off game against Oakland in 1972.
[2]Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) does not necessarily raise this expectation. The word Isaiah uses, usually translated virgin ('alma), is ambiguous and may simply mean "young maiden." The near fulfillment of the prophecy probably was a child born to the prophet's wife who was not a virgin. (She had already borne children.) Matthew, however, translates and interprets Isaiah's prophecy with the Greek word, pathenos that is not ambiguous and unequivocally means "virgin" (Matthew 1:14).
[3] The earliest creed, the so-called Apostles' Creed states in part: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."
[4] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 123

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