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December 1st, 2008 at 2:33 pm

What if God Was One of Us – The Incarnation

Today, Monday December 1, 2008, is the first Monday in this year’s liturgical season of Advent, which began Sunday November 30th, the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Today and for a few days thereafter I would like to explore the meaning of several Christmas-Advent words, starting with “incarnation.”

Like many of our English words, “incarnation” comes from a Latin word which itself comes from a Greek word. But “incarnation” began somewhat as a specialty word, the meaning of which is rooted directly in the New Testament.

Specifically the concept is rooted in the first sentence of John 1:14, which reads in our English bibles as follows: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The “Word” in this verse refers back to the familiar first few verses of the chapter – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Without going into all the background regarding the use of the Greek title “logos” translated here as “Word,” let me just say here that this “Word” is none other than Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.

In verse fourteen we read that this “Word” – Jesus Christ – “became flesh.” Now the Greek word translated here as “flesh” is the word “sarx.” Here in the Gospel of John “sarx” refers simply to physical or bodily life, that is, to real physical humanity, to real physical personhood.

The Latin word which translates this Greek word for flesh is “caro.” Add the prefix “in” to “caro” and you get an adjective which might be translated by something like “enfleshed.” Add on a suffix and you have a noun for the process of becoming “enfleshed” – the Latin noun “incarnatio.” And this Latin word then is transliterated into our English as “incarnation.” In summary, our word “incarnation” comes from the Latin word incarnatio” which itself comes from the Latin words “cara,” or flesh, with a prefix before it “en” (or “in” in English.) “Caro” itself is a translation of the Greek word “sarx,” which translated into English is “flesh,” our physical human bodies.

Thus it is easy to see how from this sentence in John 1:14 comes a Latin word from which we pretty directly have our English word “incarnation.”

In theological terms “incarnation” is the central mystery of the Christian faith. It is a mystery in two senses. First, it is a mystery because it was not revealed or made known until the time of Jesus’ first coming. Second, the very notion of God becoming man is beyond understanding. We can put boundaries around the idea, and say what it doesn’t mean. We can try as best as we can to say what it does mean. But in the end we are left in awe before the mystery of God’s person and God’s purpose as God the Son becomes a human  being, Jesus of Nazareth. This is an awe which leads to worship and adoration.

In John 1 as well as in many other Scriptures “incarnation” is united to the truth of the pre-existence of the Son. Incarnation is the idea of the pre-existent Son of God, the “Logos” or “Word” of John 1:1, taking upon human flesh, human life, and human personhood. We see this very same principle clearly stated in Philippians 2: 5-8.

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

Jesus of course often spoke of having “come” from the Father. We see this for example in John 6:38 and John 12:44-46:

“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

“Then Jesus cried out, ‘When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.’”

Thus we see the connection between the ideas of “advent” and “incarnation.” In the first advent or “coming” of Jesus, God the Son became “enfleshed,” inseparably bound to humankind by the taking on of human nature.

This is enough for one day. Let me leave you with this one key thought, upon which you can meditate and for which you can rejoice. The God who made the heavens and the earth, the one true God who created all things in love and out of the storehouse of His goodness, this God, despite our disregard for Him, has not given up on the human race. Indeed, He has now and forever more committed himself to us by becoming one of us.

“What if God was one of us?”

Well, He has, and thus we celebrate Advent.

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