This Christmas season, I’ve been thinking about the incarnation of Christ because of all the restrictions that we’ve lived under due to government responses to COVID-19. The Son of God came to the world in-the-flesh, in-person, but for much of this year many of us have been unable to see each other in person. Everyone has been doing the best they can given the circumstances, and there is much to be thankful for, including the miracle of digital communication that enables us to be “present” to some degree for one another. In messaging from the government, we’ve heard a lot about “essential” and “non-essential” activities, but many times “church” has been relegated to the “non-essential” list. For that reason, in this post I wanted to reflect briefly on why God thought it was essential to send His son in-person, in-the-flesh, for us and our salvation. Was the incarnation essential? How does the incarnation of Christ relate to the limited ability to gather with others in-person in the time of COVID-19?
One of the early church fathers, Athanasius, who lived in Egypt during the 4th century, wrote a little book called “On the Incarnation”, reflecting on the nature and meaning of Christ becoming man. In the book, he laid out the problem that people had sinned and wandered from God. Other parts of creation had not rebelled – only us, people. And God, wanting to redeem us from our fallenness, needed to make himself manifest to us. He wanted to make himself known to us in order to draw us back to him. He did this by becoming a human being. Because people are so lowly and unimpressive, Athanasius pondered why God would become man. He wrote:
“Some may then ask, why did He not manifest Himself by means of other and nobler parts of creation, and use some nobler instrument, such as sun or moon or stars or fire or air, instead of mere man? The answer is this. The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it, not diminishing the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it.”
In essence, Athanasius was saying that God becoming a person in order to be with us in-the-flesh was essential because of who we are. Our weaknesses, our limitations, and our nature, necessitated that He become a being like us in order that we might see who God is. In this vein, Athanasius commented further:
“For, being men, they would naturally learn to know His Father more quickly and directly by means of a body that corresponded to their own and by the Divine works done through it; for by comparing His works with their own they would judge His [works] to be not human but Divine.”
More than 300 years before Athanasius, Jesus explained this very thing to his disciples, namely that they should be able to recognize God the Father through the works that Jesus was doing. In answer to Philip’s request that Jesus show them the Father, “Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:8-14)
The Son of God came in the flesh to be with us, to be visible to us, to be really, viscerally, and tangibly with us so that we would understand who God really is. THIS was essential. Nothing less than the incarnation of the Son of God would do.
Now, of course, it would be easy to think, “Yes, of course, the disciples saw Jesus, but now He has gone up to heaven. How do we see Jesus today? How is Christ made manifest to us really, bodily, in-the-flesh?” The answer is “through us.” Are we not, as the Apostle Paul said, “the body of Christ”? Is not God tangibly “incarnate” (so to speak) today through the life of Christian believers?
In one sense, the incarnation is not repeatable. God only became incarnate once, when the divine nature was united with human nature in one person, Jesus Christ. But in another very real sense, God is manifest and visible to us today through other Christians who are the body of Christ.
The church is the visible presence of Jesus Christ in this world. God has deemed the people of God, His church, to be essential in proclaiming and reflecting Christ himself in the world. We are the hands and feet of Christ, and the mouth and ears of Christ, in ministering to the hurts of this world. This can be done to a limited degree through digital communications, through phone calls, through letters, etc… but not fully. With the world as it is, and government restrictions as they are in many places, being fully present for people and fully displaying who Christ is to them is challenging at best.
However, because God the Father deemed it essential that God the Son come in the flesh to be with us to redeem us in our totality – in mind, spirit, and body - then it is also essential that God’s people, the church, strive to express God’s gospel of redemption to others, ministering to them in the fullness of mind, spirit, and body.
Regardless of how government authorities and society-at-large may view the Christian faith and church gatherings, in-person expression of the love of Christ is essential, both for the upbuilding of the people of God and for reflecting Christ to a watching world. There may be times and seasons to find alternative ways of communicating with others, but they all fall short of actually “being there.” God the Son knew that “being there” was essential for us and our salvation, and the body of Christ is also essential as God’s chosen way to mediate God and His redemption to the world.