For American Protestants like me, the Christmas season presents us with an opportunity that has become rare today: the opportunity to rediscover a scriptural doctrine with the potential to restore a denatured, disembodied, over-spiritualized faith to wholeness, solidity, and dimensionality. That is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation is a story before it is a doctrine—a story of a stable, a birth, years of work in a carpenter’s shop, table-fellowship with sinners, healing many, feeding many—and at last dying for many, and rising again. The last part of the story, we dwell on always. But do we dwell also on how the story began—how the eternal Creator God came, shockingly, mysteriously, inscrutably, to share our own flesh and humanity?
If we did, then here’s what I think would happen: it would begin to dawn on us how the human nature of Christ, who is not only the son of God but also the son of Mary, exalts our humanity.
Learning from Medieval Christians
If we want a full-body immersion in the Incarnation, there’s no better place to go than the writings of medieval Christians.
The exaltation of our humanity in the Incarnation was a medieval theme par excellence. No part of the Bible more transfixed them than the stories of the Gospels. No scene was more painted by their artists than the Annunciation. They preached and lived a redemption made flesh, in the activities of their own flesh. They carried out the “seven corporal works of mercy”— feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, healing the sick, providing material resources for others.
Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.
Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.
And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.
Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:
Our bodies matter.
Our minds matter.
Our relationships matter.
Our work matters.
A Faith That Lives
Christianity is not a set of abstract doctrines. It is a faith that lives—that loves God and neighbor actively and in every walk and work. Our final destination is not a disembodied heaven. It is a New Creation that takes up and perfects (we know not how) all human bodily and social flourishing. Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.
What’s that you say? This medieval stuff—with its focus on Mary—sounds more Catholic than Protestant? More shame to the Protestants, then. Hear Luther himself: “Mary was not only holy. She was also the mother of the Lord. With trembling and reverence, before nestling him to herself, she laid him down, because her faith said to her, ‘He will be ‘the Son of the Highest.’’” And again: “They must have marveled that this Child was the Son of God. He was also a real human being. Those who say that Mary was not a real mother lose all the joy. He was a true Baby, with flesh, blood, hands and legs. He slept, cried, and did everything else that a baby does only without sin.”
As Luther’s words remind us, Mary belongs just as much to Protestants as to the other two great confessions. That was the burden of the “Mary issue” of Christian History, as I expressed in my editor’s note. We Protestants may protest that the late medieval church introduced extrabiblical elements of Marian devotion and took wrong turnings in the ways it lived out its incarnational insights. That’s a matter for rigorous ecumenical debate, to be sure. But can we at least see that the medieval church started in the right place on the Incarnation? This is where we need to start, too: with the birth of Jesus to Mary, and his sharing of her complete humanity—which now becomes not only his solidarity with us in suffering, but also his active delight and ever-present help in our everyday life and work.
Medieval Christians knew that
if a poor Jewish girl could become the mother of the Incarnate God, and
if that child could grow and learn and work as a humble carpenter and bring God’s wisdom to a group of tradesman-disciples in stories of farming and fishing and vine-dressing and even financial investing, and
if God himself could walk the dusty roads of our world and eat and drink with sinners (Matt 11:19), and attend weddings (John 2:1-11), and weep over his dying friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and experience real fear and trembling in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46) and abandonment by the Father in his crucifixion (Matt 27:46),
then God himself had indeed shared the whole range of our experience. And that means that these lives of ours are important—even our eating and drinking and marrying and getting sick and being healed and eventually dying. And our work too.
Recovering an Incarnational Way of Life
Where does that leave us twenty-first-century Western Christians, surrounded by the weak teachings of a spiritualized faith, forgetful of the humanity of Christ and therefore the humanity of humanity? What can we do to recover a truly incarnational way of living and working?
In our prayers and meditations, we can dwell not only on how Christ’s descent into the flesh and blood of humanity made possible his sacrifice for our sins, but also on how it raises up the value and wonder and splendor of our own humanity—everywhere that humanity is exercised and expressed, including in our work places and work relationships.
And we can bring that sense of God’s constant presence with us, and his delight in our humanity, into our daily interactions with the natural and cultural world, as St. Francis and the Franciscans did, ever alert for the “ten thousand places” where Christ plays. Yes, even in the fallenness of it all.
For in not just creating us but coming to us, sharing our flesh, and living among us, God has exalted our flesh too—touching all that we do with the potency of divinity. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
This Christmas season, let us allow the Incarnation to birth in us a new awareness of these words—as they apply to our neighbor, and to ourselves, too.