The holiday season is upon us, and 2020 has been rough. If you are anything like me, you have spent this year in a disoriented state trying to make sense of what is going on, how things will get better or even what day it is. As I approach this season—which this year feels nothing like the Hallmark postcards that represent this holiday—I am facing the reality of a COVID-19 Christmas and living in the cognitive dissonance that permeates my thoughts.
This is the time of year that we celebrate the birth of Christ. But what does that mean for us in 2020? How does the incarnation of a baby 2000 years ago have any practical ramifications for today? Are there lingering effects of this incarnation beyond the great story that we celebrate in the church’s history?
One exercise that I have grown relatively accustomed to over the last few years is allowing the biblical text to be more playful than I have traditionally considered. I call these my “thought experiments.” Through these experiments, I process lively interpretations of the biblical texts and see if I might stumble across new ways to interpret specific passages. I invite you to join me in one of these experiments.
Paul writes in Romans 8:18-21: “That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens” (The Message).
Do you sense the hope that is embedded throughout this text? What is this deepening of joyful anticipation? Because I—and many others—could use a heavy dose of that right now. Because when you have lived through 2020, chances are you are very aware of the “present hard times” and probably long for the “coming good times.”
Everything in creation?
One of the images that arrests me here is the concept that “everything in creation” is more or less being held back. Everything in creation? Does this extend beyond humans? Does it extend beyond the animal kingdom? What about to the subatomic level that composes us? What about cancer cells? What about the coronavirus? Is this literal? Allegory? How are we supposed to properly understand this text?
And these questions lead to more: Is the incarnation the beginning of the good news, death-reversal story for humanity? Or does the “all living creatures” that Paul talks about include plants, seaweed, distorted DNA strands and micro-organisms in the ocean’s deepest reaches? If not, where does the “living creatures” line get drawn and who gets to draw that line?
Dutch theologian Niels Gregersen suggests that “the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is, an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence.” He is not alone in this thinking. In fact, critical religious thinkers have held similar views throughout church history. However, over the years many Christians have adopted a line of thinking that limits God’s concern of salvation to humanity. Was Jesus sent to save humans? Or was the death of Christ powerful enough to eradicate death to homo-sapiens and beyond?
What if what was happening with this child in a manger was the subversive start to the unraveling of decay that entered the world through Eden? What if the incarnation is the trumpet sound to all creation that things are moving in reverse back to the way that they were intended to be?
What if the incarnation was not a one-time event that flipped the redemptive switch but was the initiation that weds Jesus to humanity and as a result, reaches beyond humanity to all living creatures and to the cosmic dust of which all the earth’s creatures are composed?
It is the Christ who puts on a skinsuit and descends to be directly connected with humanity because of his generosity, love and kindness, and it is the faithfulness of the Father to see that he will finish the work that he started.
The incarnation was a slap in the face of the other gods who ruled the narrative of the day. Where typical gods would demand sacrifice, God provides the sacrifice at the cost of himself. Where other gods were angry and unable to be pleased, this God was pleased to offer himself for the sake of a relationship.
We see the divine enter into suffering in the Garden of Eden and again in a manger. And he enters into our distress today and has promised to redeem it all. This is repetitive incarnation.
Perhaps you are familiar with the famous verse in John 3, which says, “God so loved the world…” But, there is a better and more expansive translation. When we read in the original Greek, we read “God so loved the Cosmos.” In reading this way, we are reminded that the incarnation was a result of God’s love for the entirety of his creation. This extends past human beings to the animal kingdom and flora and fauna and the subatomic world.
It was in Bethlehem that God “willed to make himself known no longer in previous times through the image and shadow of wisdom, which is in creatures, but has made the true Wisdom herself take flesh and become a mortal human,” writes the early church theologian Athanasius in Orations against the Arians. When God became human, he took on a created nature. And in doing so, he was sharing in the unification of all things that have been created.
So, I propose that the babe in the manger has far deeper reaching ramifications than perhaps we have ever considered. Through the incarnation, the lion lays with the lamb. Through the embodiment of God, we can genuinely hold hope for peace on earth. And not just in a hypothetical sense, but in a literal already-but-not-yet future for us.
When thinking about the redemption of all things from this lens, it opens us up to see redemption in a whole new way, and then more questions can be asked:
- What does it look like for the genetic materials in the coronavirus to stop succumbing to degradation and become disarmed of death and instead submit to the life-giving authority of Jesus?
- Do we really believe that all brokenness, racism, injustice, and brutality will one day be made right?
- What joy are we able to find in being agents of this significant reversal of brokenness?
We can choose to be passive as this joyful anticipation deepens, or we can be engaged agents who assist in the stewarding of this consequential reversal.
And so, as we gather through this holiday season, my prayer is that we remain hopeful in all things as we allow this joyful anticipation to deepen. That we remember that what we currently observe around us is not how things will be forever.
The divine is still at work in the redemption of all things, and what started at the incarnation extends beyond the restoration of our relationship to God—to the redemption of all cells, even the coronavirus.
Joy to the (subatomic) world! The Lord has come. Let the entire earth receive her King!
By Heath Hollensbe