Incarnation

I don’t remember when I first heard a sermon comparing the Incarnation to a person becoming an ant in order to communicate with ants. (It was longer ago than when this sermon was given in 2001, but this is a fair approximation of what I remember hearing.) It was pointed out, of course, that there is a far vaster gulf between the infinite God and finite humans than between humans and ants. But there is certainly a big gap between us and ants.

I’ve been thinking about that analogy the last few days, as the holiday celebrating God’s incarnation as a human approached. If I were to “empty myself of all human knowledge and power and be limited in time and space to be born as a little white egg and grow up in the ant world and bring them my message of love from the Great Entomologist,” would I still have the capacity to bring them that message?

I don’t remember much about the anatomy of ants from tenth grade biology, but I’m pretty sure that whatever sort of brain they have, its capacity is pretty limited. I imagine that trying to express human thoughts with an ant brain would be somewhat like trying to program a robot to do microsurgery using one of those dollar store handheld calculators.

The difference is not just in the size capacity, but in the type of logic that can be performed. A basic calculator is hard-wired to do basic arithmetic and perhaps hold a value in memory (though as it doesn’t have a Help function, I never know how to use that memory function). It has no ability to deal with even the simplest if-then statement that is a basic building block of computer programming.

An ant is, so to speak, “hard-wired” to perform certain tasks and react in certain ways to external stimuli (i.e. it acts by instinct). I question whether its brain has the capacity to process an idea such as a Great Entomologist, let alone the idea of being loved by one. So how could becoming an ant allow me to convey such an idea? How could I, as an ant, hold the idea in my own head, let alone communicate it to my fellow ants?

Of course, one way the analogy breaks down is precisely what it is that makes the gulf between us and ants less than between us and God. Both we and ants are created by God. We are not the creators of the ants, and they are certainly not made in our image. We humans, on the other hand – according to Christian teaching – are made in the image of God. People have suggested all sorts of interpretations of what that “image” means, but it certainly makes sense to think that it means that there is far more potential for communication between God and us than between us and ants.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering – if my imagined “incarnation” as an ant leaves me with little if anything conceivably human about me, what exactly of the divine was in Jesus the man? There are probably as many opinions on that as on the meaning of the image of God in humans. Mostly, they seem to boil down to some mystical divine nature that somehow is there, although there’s really no good explanation of where the “there” is.

I think Christians are so used to the idea of the Incarnation that we rarely think about just how difficult an idea it is to get our minds around. I forget what book I read, a long time ago, that pointed out that the Incarnation is, in some ways, a vastly greater miracle than the Resurrection. People may or may not believe the Resurrection, but conceptually it’s not that difficult. The Incarnation, however, is simply beyond our understanding, which is why we end up – if we believe it – acknowledging that it’s a mystery and then going on to think about something we actually can understand.

I was surprised, reading an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “Do Christians Overemphasize Christmas?”, to see N.T. Wright listed as one of those admonishing Christians to put less emphasis on Christmas, because Easter is more important. The author of the article doesn’t quote Wright, however, or mention where Wright teaches that, so I googled “Wright” and “Christmas” to see what he does say.

This excellent article in Christianity Today is much more what I would have expected from Wright. He talks first about the incomprehensibility (to us) of the incarnation, as taught in the first verses of the Gospel of John. Then he makes it clear that “John’s prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story.” So it is with Christmas – and this is the point the author of the WSJ article is making, even if I think he misrepresents Wright in the process.

As Wright points out, Christmas is not all good news. It’s not “only about comfort and joy. In truth, it’s also about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment.” That’s why Good Friday and Easter are so important. But it’s also key to understanding why they are important.

In my experience, Christians – at least in Evangelical churches – are much more likely to de-emphasize than overemphasize Christmas. Between trying to avoid the materialism of our culture (at least in church – what happens in people’s homes is another matter), and being sure to always point to the cross, Christmas seems to serve mostly as a springboard to messages about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I suppose a holiday whose main idea is incomprehensible – apart from God’s grace – is a tough one to celebrate. It’s much easier to focus on the pageantry, the gifts, and the fun (we got a Wii for Christmas!), or else to jump mentally ahead to the other major holiday that brings people in our society to church. But something in me insists on periodically tackling difficult ideas the way our dog occasionally chews on her Nylabone (not quite indestructible, but it sure doesn’t show much sign of how much she has gnawed on it).

Tomorrow I’ll tackle learning to play the Wii.

One Response to Incarnation

  1. Karen O says:

    Having a new baby in the family at Christmas sure had me dwelling on the Incarnation. Little Forrest was like an object lesson. Looking at how helpless & dependent he is really brought home to me just what Jesus gave up to come here, & just how much He humbled Himself to come in the form of a baby.

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