Understanding the Incarnation

The tale of an illuminating Christmas Eve

Written By Robert M. Watson

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, 
and we have seen his glory, 
the glory as of a father's only son,  
full of grace and truth.
—John 1:14

The Christian faith hangs on two mighty events—just as a human being walks on two legs, or a cart is borne on two wheels, or a door hangs on two hinges, or the Golden Gate Bridge is suspended between two towers. Take away one, and the entire structure collapses. These two events are the incarnation and the resurrection. The first event marks the entry of God's son from eternity into time, the second event marks his re-entry from time into eternity.

Today our thoughts are directed to an aspect of the first of these two events, the incarnation, or Bird in snowto use St. John's words, that momentous first appearing when the Word became flesh and began dwelling among us for our salvation. Well, you may say, so what? How exactly does the incarnation impact my life and your life? In what way am I any the better off for it?

I want to tell you a story which, in my opinion, affords as splendid a paradigm of the meaning of the incarnation as the human imagination can fashion. I heard it several years ago. It is the story of a man—a middle-class American farmer, not unlike millions of us. A hard-working, decent, self-respecting fellow, but one who, as he put it, was simply not religious. He lived on and worked his farm, which was near a city in the Middle West. 

One memorable Christmas Eve, the weather was bitterly cold as a howling storm blew in from across the plains. As the hour grew late that night, the man's wife begged him to accompany her and their two children to the midnight worship service at their church, but he declined. He explained that he preferred to sit at home in comfort in front of his cheery fireplace and do his meditating on his own, but that he would wait up for them until they returned from the service. 

And so, after she and the children drove away into that freezing night, he threw another log onto the crackling fire, and, setting himself in his easy chair, fixed himself a good martini, gazed out of his picture window at the swirling snowflakes, picked up the sports section of the newspaper and thought how fortunate he was to be snug and warm on such a wretched night. 

In a few minutes his thoughts were interrupted by a strange sound coming from his picture window. As he looked up, he saw to his astonishment that hundreds of small birds were beating against the glass. Apparently a whole flock of birds, fleeing the force of the driving gale and sub-zero temperature, had been attracted by the heat and light radiating from the big window in the side of his house. The birds were flying into the transparent window pane and falling stunned into the snowbank beneath. Then, regaining there strength, they fluttered up and drove into it again and again, until some began to fall dead from exhaustion. Soon the area beneath his window was littered with their corpses.

Being a tender-hearted, compassionate fellow, the man was aghast at the carnage. It then occurred to him that he had a big, warm barn at the edge of his backyard, and if he were to go out and open the large doors to his barn, the birds would find shelter there. Then after they all had flown inside the barn, he could close the doors, and they would be protected until the storm blew over. 

So, he promptly went outside, waded through the snow, opened the big barn doors, turned on the lights inside, and tired to shoo the birds inside. But the barn was too far away, and the birds simply wouldn't be diverted. They persisted in hurling themselves against his picture window. The birds perceived him as a big threatening presence, and in their fright spurned the help he was trying to offer.  If only I could assume the shape of a bird, he thought ruefully, then they would no longer be afraid of me and would trust me, and  I could lead them to safety.

And suddenly, the whole meaning of Christmas and the incarnation became clear to him, as if scales had fallen from his eyes. He understood immediately, profoundly and ecstatically how it is that God yearns to save mankind from itself—a humankind engaged in a thousand kinds of self-destructiveness. Do we not look for salvation in the wrong places and in the wrong ways, and hurl ourselves to our doom exactly like those birds. ...

And so God, in St. John's incomparably majestic prose, became as one of us and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, to lead us to that heavenly home prepared for us from the beginning of the world. He came into our midst wearing a body like our own—a baby was born in poverty, a boy grew and learned how to earn his bread as a humble carpenter, a man showed the way in service and suffering. He loved as no man ever loved. He spoke as no man ever spoke. He healed as no man ever healed.

At first other people saw nothing beyond the surface—just a man, somehow better and more trustworthy than others, though outwardly just like them. And then, a purer truth, a more compelling mystery began to unfold. It happened as God began effecting through him such healing of sick bodies and twisted minds and tormented spirits as had never before been seen, voicing such truths as they had never heard. But so blinding was that brilliant illumination that it pained their eyes, and they tried to snuff it out. 

Then, when the great black mystery of the cross was succeeded by the great white mystery of the resurrection, and that human who had been born among us at a Bethlehem stable was borne away from us upon the mount of the Ascension, men realized that they had been in the presence of such glory as could only have been the glory of God himself. Jesus' glory was no mere reflected glory. His was the glory. In the good men and women around us today, we can see something of that same glory. But their's is different from Christ's glory— it is the difference between the moon and the sun. The one has the glory of reflected light, the other is the light itself.

Jesus continually, inextinguishably, irrepressibly emanates from the Father in a coexistence that is nothing less than identity. St. John is telling us that Christ expanded human life as far as it can possibly be expanded while still remaining human. Most astounding of all—he is as much alive in the world today as he ever was—indeed more so—because there are more of us living in the communion that he formed and nourishes in the hearts of the millions who look to him in faith. 

God's life poured out in Christ; Christ's life poured out in his church. This is the great and undiminished Christmas gift of which you and I are the recipients throughout the year. In his life and his light, his promise and his power, there is no way we can lose. That is why St. Matthew in his gospel has appended another name to that of Jesus.  Matthew calls him Emmanuel: God with us. Yesterday, today, forever. 

Excerpted from a sermon delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee,  on January 1, 1998, Feast of the Holy Name.