Incarnated not Disguised
Awe is a feature of Christmas. Stories of reindeer who fly, a snowman that doesn't melt, and of hardened people who do. True Christmas ought to awe us. In fact, you really aren't getting what true Christmas is if you're not awed. And you won't be awed until you repent of the error that Christmas is God disguising Himself as a man or God putting on the mask of a man. There is nothing awe-inspiring in a disguise or mask. But God wasn't disguised today He was incarnated. He wasn't masked but enfleshed.
If you have trouble getting your head around this, you're not alone. Great thinkers have stumbled at this mystery. Take John Milton, the 17th century English poet who wrote the epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Most would consider him a pretty savvy theological thinker. One of his first poems was On the Morning of Christ's Nativity. In it, he compared the coming of Christ into the world to the coming of the god Pan. Pan was half god, half animal. About this same time Milton started another poem entitled The Passion. This poem treats with great pathos the sufferings of Christ, His cross and death, but then it just stops. Milton attached this note to the unfinished poem: "The subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished."
Isn't that strange? What was so difficult for Milton? It was the incarnation, the eternal Son of God being born of Mary. In the first poem, he could only think of it in terms of half and half. Like the god Pan whose top part was man and bottom part animal, so Jesus was half man and half God. Of course, this isn't what Scripture says. Scripture says, "The Word was God and all of this Word was made flesh." Scripture says, "All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ."
However, Milton didn't really stumble in the first poem about the nativity. It wasn't till he got to the sufferings of Christ that He stumbled. Do you know why? Perhaps this line from the second poem will help. He says of God taking on flesh and blood, "O what a Mask was there, what a disguise." When speaking of the nativity, Milton could get by with thinking of Jesus as half man and half God, but that wouldn't work when thinking of His suffering and dying for sinners. Unless Jesus is fully God what would His suffering and death merit? But how could Jesus be fully God and still be Man? Milton resorted to thinking of this the only way fallen reason can: God took on a human mask, disguised Himself as man. Milton could think this way till he got deep into Jesus' suffering and death. If His taking on human form was just a mask or disguise, then His pain and death on the cross weren't real either.
Milton illustrates the 2 ways people slip away from the truth, the 2 ways they miss the awe of Christmas. They make Jesus fully human by taking away from His deity. He's not fully God just part. Or they make Jesus fully God by taking away from His humanity. He only appeared human, i.e. He had the mask of humanity; God was disguised as a man.
Contrast this with Luther who casts reason aside and seeks God only in Christ. He finds the fullness of God only in Jesus, in the manger, on the cross, in His Word and Sacraments. Luther says, "Reason and longing would ascend and seek Him [God] above. I will stay with that Boy as He nurses, is washed, and dies. There is no joy but in this Boy. Take Him away and you face the Majesty [of God] which terrifies. I know of no God but this One in the manger." Here is the really awesome thing of Christmas. Here is what had shepherd's awestruck and Mary awed.
Stop thinking of God up there or over there or away from here. God took on flesh and blood at Christmas, never to put them off. In Christ, by Christ, through Christ is how God wants you to approach Him, know Him, see Him. You don't get to the real God by pealing back the mask' of the Man Jesus. God does not wear the mask of a man. He has become enfleshed in a man. You don't get to the true God by peering behind the disguise of Jesus Son of Mary. God's not wearing a disguise. He's been incarnated in flesh and blood through the womb of the Virgin Mary.
If you think of Him in any other way, not only do you miss the awe of Christmas, you ruin Easter too as Milton found out. Without a real incarnation, without a real enfleshing of God the Son, then Jesus would just be a man, maybe a good or great man, but a man just the same. O sure He would have gone through life trying to keep the Law in your place, but how far would He have gotten? Adam and Eve were perfect too, yet they couldn't keep the Law perfectly. No, if the Law was to be kept 100% perfectly, only God could do that. But if He wasn't really man, if Jesus had only the mask of being a Man, He really wouldn't have been under the Law at all. He would just be acting, pretending as if He were. Acting or pretending to keep a law is called being a hypocrite.
It's the same with His suffering and dying. If Jesus really wasn't true man, just had a mask on, then there really wasn't any true suffering going on. The screaming, the pleading, the crying for your sins, would have been just pretend. Then again if Jesus wasn't truly, 100% God, what would His suffering and dying be? Just the suffering and dying of another man; billions of men before and after Him have suffered and died without redeeming themselves let alone anyone else.
Still not awed over God becoming Man, of the eternal Son of God being born of a woman in time? Flying reindeer, talking snowman, and a converted Grinch seem more awesome? Part of the reason is that the incarnation isn't intellectually satisfying. Your head can't get around it and say, "Yes, this is what it is." It's more satisfying to think as Milton first did of Jesus being half man and half God or of God donning a mask or disguise. You can say, "I get that. I understand that." But explaining a miracle ruins the miracle, and there's comfort only in the miracle of the incarnation.
The comfort is that God shares your flesh and blood. You can stop viewing God based on the distinction between deity and humanity and start viewing it today from the similarities. You have a mind, body, soul. God in Christ does too. He knows what it means to face death in a clay body. He knows what it means to fight a devil you can't see from a body that can be seen. He knows what it means to be tempted so that your mouth waters and your heart races. Your God is in the physical places you do battle with sin, death and the Devil with His flesh and blood alongside yours.
The Russian soldier has an expression for this. It's called the feel of cloth.' This was their downfall in World War I. The Russians would march shoulder to shoulder, literally, into battle easy targets for artillery. They marched this way because they drew strength from the feel of cloth; the physical contact of brothers going into battle made the fear less intense to them. You have this feel of cloth with God in Christ. Draw strength, courage, and comfort from Him being beside you in flesh and blood.
This is the great reality that is to control your day to day reality. The sickness, the family troubles, the world problems, your deep fears aren't bigger than the reality that God in flesh abides with you. You know how we Christians date all things in relation to the birth of Christ? Things are before Christ, B.C. or Anno Domini, A.D. in the year of our Lord? This system is called incarnation dating. That's good; take all things back to the incarnation. The enfleshment of God gives all things meaning, particularly ordinary flesh and blood things.
The religions which don't know of an incarnate God despise or at least downplay earthly, physical things. The statues of Buddha all, save one, have their eyes shut because this physical world is not important. The Laughing Buddha has his eyes open. He's laughing because this physical world is a joke to him. It's not to the true God who took on flesh and blood to redeem flesh and blood and this fallen world with them. The food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, your reason and all your senses have all been redeemed for your use and enjoyment. Even the trials and tribulations associated with these have been redeemed. The incarnation of God in physical flesh and blood redeems, sanctifies, and utilizes even the bad things that happen to our flesh and blood.
When Thomas Edison was searching for a material to use in making a light bulb filament, he even tried stinky limburger cheese. Thankfully, it didn't work. But God can do what Edison could not. Our God in flesh and blood took mud and healed people with it. He took human spit which is only disgusting to us and made people hear, see, and speak. This God incarnate, Man divine takes the mud, spit, and stinky limburger cheese of your life and works wonders with them.
The 8th century church father John of Damascus said this. "I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became matter, and accepted to dwell in matter, and through matter wrought my salvation." God took on matter to redeem matter, but it doesn't end there. He now uses matter to spread His redemption. He works through things that touch the flesh and blood of humans. He speaks Words that not only forgive your sins but vibrate your eardrums. He pours water on your physical body that cleanses, rebirths, and regenerates your body and soul. He feeds your body and blood with His Body and Blood for everlasting life using Bread and Wine that you eat and drink.
Talk about awesome. In the words of a 20th century English poet, it's not just "That God was Man in Palestine." No, it's also that He "lives today in Bread and Wine." And we live with Him, in Him, there. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas Day (20061225); John 1: 14-18