Reading through some of my favorite sections of Irenaeus and Athanasius it struck me again how full of wonder they were over the incarnation. They did not think of the incarnation as a means to another end. The gift is Jesus himself. The Father’s Son became a human being, one of us. The simple point of such an amazing move is that he wanted to be with us, and to share life with us. Immanuel, of course, means just that. Although technically Immanuel means ‘God with us,’ the God who came to be with us is a God of relationship. The Son did not come alone. He became human as the Father’s Son and as the One who dwells in the Holy Spirit. So he brought his relationship with his Father and his relationship with the Holy Spirit into his incarnate relationship with us, and indeed all creation.
Being so preoccupied with legalities has largely blinded us in the West to such an astounding gift. We have separated the gift from the person. The cross has become more important than Jesus. The incarnation has become a means to another end. But it is not the cross or the death of Jesus that is central to the gospel. The heart of Christianity is Jesus himself. To be sure, it is Jesus as crucified, resurrected and ascended. But these aspects of Jesus life are just that, aspects of his life and existence and being, and they are aspects of his incarnate relationship with us.
It may be helpful to note that the incarnation is not to be confused with the birth of Jesus, as if it were only one part of his life. The incarnation is all inclusive, involving his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. To be with us, to include us in his own life and relationships, sin had to be addressed and overcome. The death of Jesus figures into the larger event of his incarnate relationship with us, of his bringing heaven and earth together in relationship. Given the fall and sin, how could there be a real incarnation without the death and resurrection of the Father’s Son? For how could Jesus have a real relationship with us without meeting us as we are as fallen creatures? And how could this Son and this anointed One meet us as we are as fallen creatures without overcoming our sin?
And given that Jesus is the Father’s Son and the one anointed in Holy Spirit, how could there be a real incarnation without the ascension as its fulfillment? For how could this Son and this anointed One become what we are without including us in his world and life and relationships? And how could he include us in his world and life and relationships without the ascension, without lifting us up into the arms of his Father and the embrace of the Holy Spirit? The ascension is the finishing, as it were, of the process of establishing real relationship with us, wherein the Trinitarian life of God opens itself up and fully accepts, embraces and includes all that we are in our human existence.
Stretching from the Father’s dream of our adoption to the virgin birth into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the incarnation finds its ongoing fulfillment in the ascension. In the ascended Son heaven and earth, all things divine and human are together in real relationship forever. This is the meaning of the incarnation. The gift of the Triune God to the human race is Jesus himself, and in him real and everlasting relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Immanuel. Salvation. Reconciliation. Adoption.
As the great Irenaeus put it, ‘our beloved Lord Jesus Christ became what we are that He might bring us to be what he is in Himself.’ And Athanasius, ‘the Son of God became Son of man to make us sons of God.’ And John, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and reality…of His fulness we have all received grace upon grace.’ And Paul, ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.’
And Jesus, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in Me, and I in you.’