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  • Writer's pictureBrett Bonecutter

Christmas: The Incarnation Conundrum

Almost a thousand years ago in England, a monk named Anselm asked the famous question, "Cur Deus Homo," or, "Why a God-Man"? It was a puzzling question then and it is a puzzling question today. Why is Jesus portrayed as a God-Man? Aren't the underlying sentiments of peace and goodwill enough? Cur Deus Homo?

To hazard an answer to this conundrum, I believe it is important to start with Genesis of the Old Testament, not the Gospels of the New Testament. It is difficult to make proper sense of the Jesus as God-Man narrative without understanding the larger framework it rests upon. As Julie Andrews sang in the Song of Music, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."

The first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis 1, submits that all of creation is good and blessed in God's eyes, but no other features or creatures in the universe are endowed with "God's image" except humans. This does not suggest that the rest of creation is something to treat with disdain or dismissal. In fact, God blessed the many features of His creation (except on Day 2), and we are called to do the same as stewards of it. Nevertheless, one of the many teachings that emerge from the Genesis 1 text is that we will never get closer to knowing-seeing God as He is than when we come in contact with other humans who bear His "image."

Volumes have been written about what it means to bear God's image. But setting that aside for the moment, if you're like me, the whole thing feels a bit off-putting and slightly narcissistic. Aren't we simply bits of "stardust," as Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests?

Don't get me wrong - I like people, but the concept of humans uniquely bearing God's image feels strange because some of my greatest disappointments and conflicts come from people and some of my greatest moments of inspiration and serenity come from non-human sources. Taking in the visual wonders of a landscape like Yosemite stir me to more spiritual awareness and wonder than my interactions with other people.

Genesis 1 challenges me/us to nuance these feelings and to consider a different point-of-view about the nature of reality as I experience it. Namely, that if we want to experience true spirituality and divinity, it is going to be through our humanity and our interactions with other humans. And herein lies the puzzle - we often find ourselves and others terribly wanting in this role. Despite moments of real love and connection with others, humanity seems to fall far short of building a sense of deep spirituality and unity with God. Isn't humanity the root of so many problems we face - personal, environmental, political, and otherwise?

Genesis goes on to shed light on this problem by introducing the concept of humanity's fall into sin - a flaw that is unique to humans and angels. I believe one theologian put it best when he said that sin is "disordered affection." In other words, it is personal passion/love/worship pointed in the wrong direction. Yes, it has a dimension of moral/legal guilt before God, but it is fundamentally about having our hearts chasing after the wrong ends with the wrong means. Think not only in terms of shame/blame, but also in terms of being off-target with our energy and attention.

This leads to one of the great narrative arcs of the Bible - how God is putting image-bearers back to rights in the world. God's great project is healing humanity and restoring us to our fruitful role as stewards and artists who beautify creation. But He doesn't ultimately do it from afar or at a distance. Rather, He intercedes in the problem Himself by initiating a new humanity - taking on human flesh as The Image Bearer. This not only allows God to satisfy the death-penalty of disordered affections which deface creation and offend His righteousness but demonstrates the "Way" forward for humanity in the universe. Jesus as the God-Man reconstitutes humanity and shows us who we are meant to be as loving healers and teachers.

The point is simply this - to answer the ancient conundrum, Cur Deus Homo, one must first understand humanity's special place in the world as God's image-bearers. Christmas is not just about peace and love in the abstract, it is about Immanuel - or "God with Us" as one of us. God is intensely personal and involved in dealing with our disordered affections and showing us what real love looks like and achieves. And to understand what that entails, the story begins with a baby in a manger... in a backwater town of ancient Israel.

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