I am an Episcopalian, which means I belong (for the time being) to the Anglican Communion, the world-wide association of churches that looks to the See of Canterbury in England and to the tradition of Christianity that started when the Romanised Britons who were already Christian converted the heathen Saxons and that became juridically independent at the Reformation, when the Pope gave Henry VIII an unacceptable answer about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now, if you ask an Episcopalian or any other Anglican what’s the most important doctrine of the Church, chances are very, very good that the answer will be, “The Incarnation”.
The Incarnation, simply put, is the teaching that God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. All of the divine reality became humanly embodied in one particular person, a man, with parents and relations, living in a particular place and time, in a backwater occupied country under the boots of the biggest Empire west of India. Jesus was really God, but he was also really human–not just a deity wearing a temporary human suit, like Zeus in some of the Greek myths, but human all through. And also God.
The Incarnation means that Anglicans take being human seriously. We think human nature is basically good. We think human love (including sexual love), human work and creativity, human societies, human dignities (and that includes human rights or the lack thereof) are important, not just to humans but to God. They are precisely where God shows up in our lives. If you’ve read the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, or any of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, you’ve got a good taste of how Anglicans think and what the Incarnation means for us.
The thing that I find myself thinking about every so often is Why? why the Incarnation? Why did God become a human being? What was that all about?
A lot of Christians would tell you that God became human in order to get us out of the mess we had caused by sin. Adam and Eve sinned, Cain screwed things up even worse, and eventually we bottomed out and Jesus was born, lived, did some preaching and healing for a couple years, and then “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again,” as the creeds say. Why did God became incarnate? Well, it was a fix for sin. If Adam and Eve had never screwed up, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. The gruesome and unjust judicial murder of Jesus the incarnate Lord would not have been necessary. We’d all still be living in the garden, eating fruits and nuts and not wearing clothes, or something.
A Protestant of the Evangelical variety, somebody off to the right of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc., will probably tell you in great detail and with great vehemence that it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to undergo all the terrible and just punishments that we wretched sinful humans deserved at the hands of God, that he atoned for our sin by substituting for us in the sight of God. Jesus was our whipping boy; God had to punish somebody in order to satisfy his divine justice–if you can call that justice–so Jesus, who is also somehow God (Evangelicals are not real strong on the Incarnation), took that punishment instead of us.
Well, I don’t buy it.
That’s the Plan B Theory. The Incarnation is a fix for sin; it’s the divine back-up plan, the play he’ll run if the first play doesn’t get a touchdown (pardon the American sports metaphor). If we had all been good obedient little slaves in the garden, then none of that painful, messy (interesting, dramatic, awe-inspiring) Incarnational stuff would have been necessary.
Ever since I was a teenager, when I independently formulated the idea for myself without realizing I was not the first, I have held the Plan A Theory of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is why we’re all here; it’s why anything is here, why creation exists, let alone human beings. God creates everything so he can include human beings so he can become a human being. Humans can know God as one of us; God can know humans as we know one another; humans can become like God, as one of the early Church Fathers said (I can never remember if it was Irenaeus or Athanasius): “God became man that man might become God.”
It’s hinted at in the Scriptures, when one of the letters of Peter calls us “partakers in the divine nature”; in the theologies of the early Church, as I have just mentioned; in the Revelations of Julian of Norwich, where she says that human nature was first created for Christ, the Wisdom of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. It might even be mentioned in the Young Wizards series: “Those who serve the Powers/ themselves become the Powers.”. God becoming human was the plan all along. Sin made the Incarnation look different than it might have; sin meant that the appearance of Divine Love as a man among men was met by fear and hatred and eventually cruelty and violence, not wonder and joy and reciprocal love. But sin did not make God do something previously unplanned. God sharing life and being with his mortal, finite creatures was the plan all along, Plan A. Sin did not change that.
There is no room in my theology for a God who insists on punishment, who must have his pound of flesh, who cannot be appeased unless somebody suffers. Divine love created us to be partners, beloveds, not slaves or even servants, and offered itself to us in complete vulnerability. We are the ones who punished, who executed, who tortured, who drew blood. That is what I will remember tomorrow, on Good Friday. Love came down and we condemned him, treated him like the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and gave him a public execution. But Love had planned to dwell in the midst of us all along.
Here endeth the lesson.
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