It’s strange, really: in spite of the hubbub Christians tend to kick up in bemoaning the soulless materialism we see at work in the holiday season, most of the Nativity narratives you will hear are rotten with their own glib theology of glory that disparages the humble condescension that is the Incarnation. You can probably visualize it without too many cues: the cozy, preternaturally well-lit barn; sweet, serene (and apparently early-30s) Mary; the cherubic, haloed baby Jesus with a full head of hair; the farm critters all hushed in hoofed obeisance to the newborn Christ; the mighty king in his palace saying, “Pray for peace people everywhere… The child, the child- he will bring us goodness and light”; God rest ye merry gentlemen, blah blah blah. This glossy Christmas counterfeit thumbs its nose at John’s witness that “[h]e was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him” (John 1:10-11). The warm reception we automatically envision in this scene couldn’t be further from the truth, the only genuinely good news on offer which can liberate us from the tyranny the world deceitfully passes off as such. The Incarnation is an irruption of unspeakable glory insofar as its glory is veiled in shame and ignominy; its unique glory precisely is the anomaly of divine majesty forfeiting every privilege rightly due him for us and for our salvation: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
You see, there was nothing dignified or ideal about this delivery, and it had to be so. Our homogenized Christmas story sterilizes the humiliation of the Son of God and substitutes a placebo Nativity. “No room at the inn” becomes one of those chance traveling inconveniences rather than a harbinger of the world’s renunciation of its lord. The manger becomes a rustic little apartment rather than a hovel for those most desperate of peasants. The birth isn’t even depicted- it’s simply presupposed as some sort of tranquil, magical affair rather than a terror-wracked ordeal for a teenage girl with zero experience of sexuality and childbearing. And who is this king who is so moved by Jesus’ birth he implores his subjects to pray for peace? Who, really? The puppet despot the Romans left in charge over real-world Judea learned of the birth of David’s heir and burned with murderous rage. What a gulf between our holiday consciousness and the testimony of Scripture! “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). This is the Nativity we shut out by hedging it in with this scrim of respectability our sensibilities find more palatable. Buying into this jury rigged, domesticated Nativity means one more ration of triumphalist hopelessness each year, for ourselves and for the world we are commissioned to reach. Censoring the abject lowliness of the Incarnation bears false witness against the biblical witness and strips the gospel of that unique glory that instills faith. By withholding or toning down the details of the Son’s taking on flesh and dwelling among us the love of God is devalued and made less concrete, less surprising. What is more off-putting to modern sensibilities than telling a person there is nothing lovable about her? The shock of the gospel is that the supremely valuable, the most high, most blessed, most righteous and beloved entered incognito into the far country to rescue the loathsome and vile, not because of any value in them but because they are loved in spite of that deficiency. This is a love utterly unlike any love you or I have had or ever experienced from another human being, and it is this love that is dampened and filtered out when we are too ashamed to own the grittiness of the Incarnation.
By immersing himself in disgrace and fully owning it, the Son of God confronted the reigning paradigm of what power and religion and even being human means. To rescue and restore fallen man and a fallen world can only mean going against the grain of all that the world stands for. The living antithesis to all of this became one of us to undermine the world’s controlling narrative from within. The Son of God gave himself fully to every condition of being human in a fallen world in order to embody God’s judgment upon the world’s evil and to suffer and soak up that judgment as a substitute. He embodied that judgment through a life of humble receptivity and joyful submission to the Father, a living indictment of a world that disowns the God of the covenant and clings to its own self-centered, suicidal vision of what life is meant to be. A world that loves darkness instead of light won’t recognize this as beautiful and life-giving, of course; his embodiment of proper human relation to God and neighbor incurred the wrath of the world he bound himself in solidarity with. His submission to the shameful death the world demanded of him was a strike at the heart of the depraved machinery maintaining the sinful status quo, satisfying God’s wrath against sin and reversing the disorder man’s insurrection unleashed upon the universe, releasing in turn the life and light of the triune God for the healing of the world. But again, this is only by virtue of his having entered fully into the sometimes beautiful, oftentimes grim reality of human existence, inhabiting and owning every encumbrance that typifies the tragic course we chose for ourselves. Appropriating the qualities inherent in creaturehood and living out wholehearted service to God within that finitude, even to the point of death: this challenge to the world’s complacent presumptions that it knows God and possesses life and glory on its own terms is the glory of the Incarnation. Jesus’ plunge into ignominy and suffering overcame Adam’s plunge into self-determination and death, for by submitting to the death due Adam Jesus abolished all the desecration he unleashed.
One of the sweetest benefits that flows out of this total identification with humankind is a savior who truly empathizes with our plight. The Epistle to the Hebrews’ multiple descriptions of Jesus’ high priesthood make this point beautifully:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery… Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The Redeemer isn’t an indifferent middle man issuing cheap grace to no one in particular: he is a mediator who stands in the breach between God and men, representing both as personal subjects, not as abstractions. Our popular, docetic image of Jesus obscures a vital truth: the Son of God didn’t instrumentally act upon a physical body like a gamer playing Call of Duty; he took upon himself a human nature, uniting it to himself in one person, the God-Man Jesus. Jesus exhaustively exposed himself to and participated in everything that being a human entails- he really is one of us. This total immersion means that Jesus is approachable and merciful precisely because he knows firsthand what human existence is like and can fully relate to us and meaningfully empathize. The God-Man is well acquainted with every painful nuance of man’s existence, having embraced the burdens of sweat and toil and aching muscles, of sickness and weariness and the unceasing cycle of work week after work week, of the unyielding strictness of the Mosaic Law itself; the aggravations of shortsighted, unbelieving family members and petty, self-absorbed politicians and culture police; loneliness and grief, mockery and disrepute; the harsh letdown of sudden defeat and the anguish of rejection; the degradation of poverty and homelessness, of fitful sleep and hunger and thirst, of few creature comforts to ease his affliction; the anxiety of having to wait and hope in God and the frustration of hard work having come to naught; and above all, the temptation to find some respite from it all in the pain numbing haze of sin. But he did not sin- he persevered in his absolute dependence on God and resisted the impulse to view sin as any sort of genuine comfort. Jesus understands better than any of us that sin is only an opiate, temporarily deadening the pain we inevitably incur by being a part of this world. There is nothing you can bring to Jesus that will shock him or weary him; he hurts alongside you and for you because he has experienced the full brunt of the world’s viciousness and genuinely cares for your sad estate. He will never try to downplay it or explain it away, and he will never berate you for being tempted to escape it in the futile ways that come most easily. Hebrews 2:10-11 captures the spirit of this loving high priest:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers…
This is where the Incarnation takes us, and this is why we must be on guard against Americanized, substitute Christs. Do not be ashamed of the man of sorrow with nowhere to rest his head, for he is not ashamed to stand alongside you and weep with you, pitiful though you are. Do not demur at the lack of glory in the first advent for that is its peculiar, world shaking, world saving glory. Rest instead in the sweet poverty of the Lord who humbles himself to the uttermost to seek and to save the lost.