The incarnation is the complete refutation of every human system and institution that claims to control, possess, and distribute God. Whatever any church or religious leader may claim in regard to their particular access to God or control over your experience of God, the incarnation is the last word: God loves the world — Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity
Tomorrow, Advent will have ended and Christmas will have arrived. I’ve spent the past three months working in the retail world while finishing seminary, and let me be clear: it has once again changed how I view this time of year. It has been excruciatingly difficult to hold onto my love for and theological understanding of Christmas and Advent while selling trees and wreaths and candy and “cheer.” I put on the face, but inside I cringe a little thinking about the fact that our store was set for Christmas by the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. What’s so wrong with patience? Why are we so opposed to waiting?
Despite the sadness and frustration I have experienced seeing the commercialization of this season, it’s given me a chance to think about and reclaim what it means for me. In all honesty, I have always struggled with materialism. I fight against the temptation to define my own worth and value by what I own, by the money in my bank account, by the labels on my clothes. And yet this time of year I am reminded of the source of my worth, of the One who found me so valuable that he would rather become like me in order to join me than stay where he was and remain distant.
That’s what Advent is about:
waiting for the moment when Jesus lived into his decision to become one of us.
Out of love, out of a desire for deep, intimate, messy relationship, he opted to come down to the place we call home and become human.
I can’t help but wonder if he knew what was in store for him, if he had any remote idea what the experience would be like. If he did, then all the more meaningful his decision to come down anyway. If he didn’t, then I can’t help but laugh a little.
Great theologians and people of faith have spent the last two millenia pondering the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation, and they’ve arrived at some amazing answers. Personally, I choose to keep things as simple as possible. Sure, it could have been a part of some master plan to restore humanity to God. It could have something to do with Christ’s ultimate death and resurrection (though I personally have problems with the theology that teaches Christ only came to die, stripping his experience of living of its meaning). For me, it has everything to do with empathy and relationship.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says the following (It’s long but beautiful, so bear with me):
And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore.
Advent is about waiting for the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is (at least in part) about restoration, about seeing our fullness in Christ and, in Christ, having it restored to us.
It’s about relationship
and God’s unyielding desire to have it with us.
And it’s about selflessness, for in the restoration of our humanity through Christ we realize that we are not alone but rather we are in this together with and alongside each other. It’s not about the bottom dollar or Tickle Me Elmo or an overabundance of technology within our homes. It’s about seeing ourselves in the other, seeing the other in ourselves, and seeing God in both.
I don’t know where you’re at this Christmas (or if you even celebrate it). But know this, regardless what you think or feel about Jesus, receive this present: you are not alone, and you are not unloved (even though it cal feel that way). Someone out there looks at you as the best gift they could have ever received, even in all your messiness. You are loved, more deeply than you could imagine. Hold onto this.
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a soon-to-be graduate of Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. Michael lives with his partner and their two cats in Chicago and is currently preparing to enter full-time hospital chaplaincy. In his spare time, he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi. Check out more of Michael’s writing at www.findingthebalance.net.