Wait … is this actually on the Incarnation? If you take up Athanasius’s fourth-century classic On the Incarnation for your Advent or Christmas reading, you’ll likely find yourself asking this very question. For you’ll soon make the discovery that many Athanasius readers make: On the Incarnation is mostly not about the birth of Jesus.

On the topic of the baby in the manger, Athanasius has only a little bit to say. Everything he does say about it is certifiably mind-blowing: “The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. … But now he comes, condescending toward us in his love for human beings.” Merry Christmas!

But most of Athanasius’s narrative energy goes into telling us about the risen Lord who died and now lives forevermore. You might wonder where the Christmas in your Christmas reading went.

Part of the problem is that Athanasius has a great mind and a full heart and wants to share the whole truth. Helmut Thielicke once voiced the theologian’s can’t-say-it-all lament in exactly these seasonal terms: “I have to speak about everything at once like the preacher who cannot talk about Christmas without touching on the theme of Good Friday and pointing out that the crib and the cross are hewn out of the same wood.” But to everything there is a season, and we ought to be able to focus on the Incarnation during this season.

I remember the disappointment I felt going to church one Christmas when, for whatever reason, I was especially well attuned to the buildup of the whole holiday. It was one of those years when all the carols were really connecting with me, wherever I happened to hear them. (In fact, I especially enjoy hearing them in the ordinary, secular spaces of commerce and errands. There’s nothing quite like pumping gas and hearing “veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity” coming out of the speakers above the pumps!)

All month, I was not only gripped by the great doctrines but also cheered by the general jollification. Then came the Christmas sermon itself at my own church: “Baby Jesus Was Born to Die.” The preacher made the point, strongly and directly, that the real meaning of Christmas was actually all about Good Friday and Easter.

I don’t disagree. I’m evangelical, and this was a good gospel sermon. Theologically, I find the preacher’s point exactly right: The incarnation of the Son of God was directed precisely toward the goal of his death and resurrection. “The crib and the cross are hewn out of the same wood,” and though the crib is a condition for the Cross, the Cross is the main event. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that pang of disappointment, just like Christmastime readers might feel when they pick up On the Incarnation and find out most of its pages are really “On the Crucifixion” and “On the Resurrection.”

Article continues below

What I missed in the “born to die” sermon was a chance to expand my horizons, to lift up my heart, to catch sight of something that the season of Christmas in particular calls my spiritual attention to. What we miss if we turn every nativity meditation into a cross devotion is the chance to view the wider horizon.

What we want to spend time pondering every year is that even if Christmas is for the purpose of Easter, there is nevertheless something about Christmas that is bigger than Easter. Or to translate this from seasons to doctrines, the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement, even though it exists for the sake of the Atonement.

For one thing, the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement because in the Incarnation, the Son of God took on human nature. His goal was to save real people, of course, not just the idea of people. But his method was not to reach down and deal individually with here a person, there a person, or even with particular groups. Instead, the Son of God’s first step in carrying out the plan of salvation was to move into human nature itself, the nature that makes all humans human. He took that nature into personal union with himself. To say the least, this is a very large thought.

A couple of word studies can help us get our minds around this very large thought. When we say that the Son of God assumed human nature, it’s worth noting that the words assume and nature both carry special meanings. Assume means to take up, or to gather in. It is based on a word that early Christian theologians found in Hebrews 2:16: “For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.” The word helps is a translation of epilambano, which could be expansively interpreted here as “to lay hold of somebody in order to help them.” The word is also used in the Gospels to describe Jesus reaching out to take hold of people; it sometimes refers to an embrace or a hug. The doctrine of the Incarnation envisions the Son of God laying hold of human nature itself, reaching out to it and drawing it in, taking it on by taking it up into union with himself.

Article continues below

The other word is nature, as in human nature. At the root of this English word is the notion of birth, as in natal: Humans are born (they have natality) and they die (they have mortality). We are all born into human nature. In fact, to be born is to be natus, to have this nature by having this nativity. Yes, the Nativity recognizes the birth of Christ in the flesh, that is, in human nature. ¡Feliz Navidad!

There is something universally human about the Incarnation, both in its raw materials (human nature) and in its implementation (taking up), as well as in its implications. The Son of God took on the human nature that every human has. No human is excluded from this almighty act of God the Son; everyone is implicated.

We should pay attention to this universal aspect of the Incarnation and affirm it without any fear of lapsing into universalism. Universalism is the error that all people are, or will be, saved. But acknowledging the universal character of the Incarnation is something else altogether. It means admitting that humanity itself is the target of God’s redeeming love.

If the Son of God became truly, fully human, then God has invested and reinvested in the human project. It’s possible to imagine other ways that God might have plucked individuals out of the fallen human race. But when God the Father set salvation in motion by sending his Son to be among us, he chose the path of closest contact. He affirmed and reaffirmed humanity as a good idea in spite of its sin and alienation.

The Puritan theologian Isaac Ambrose wrote in Looking Unto Jesus, “If we observe it, this very point of Christ’s incarnation opens a door of rich entrance into the presence of God; we may call it, a blessed portal into heaven, not of iron, or brass, but of our own flesh.” Ambrose was writing from the point of view of full redemption, of course: He was one who did in fact “observe it” and had gone through the portal to communion with God in Christ. The Incarnation is not a doctrine about who is saved. But those who are saved are the ones who can look back and identify Christ’s assumption of human nature as the portal into heaven.

What about unbelievers? The Incarnation stands before them also as an invitation to enter the “door of rich entrance” into the presence of a reconciling God. The Incarnation means that their own nature testifies to them that the Son of God has taken hold of the very thing that they are.

Article continues below
Image: Illustration by Michael Marsicano

Another way to glimpse that the Incarnation is broader than the Atonement is to recognize that a broader set of goals is associated with the Incarnation. Atonement is related to sin and forgiveness, but Incarnation is related to divinity and humanity coming into contact in the person of Christ. By becoming incarnate, the Son made himself personally present to humanity in an unprecedentedly intimate way.

The total gospel message includes two moments: first that the Son of God came to us, and second that he died and rose for us. The two go together seamlessly. We learn that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, in the first chapter of Matthew. But it is not until the final chapter that the crucified and risen Lord speaks the promise “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (28:20). We would never want to chop the gospel in half by severing those two moments from each other. There is no need to do so. We can acknowledge both, recognizing that one of them is the focus of Christmas and the other the focus of Easter.

Once again we see that the Incarnation is ordered toward the Atonement but the Incarnation is more expansive. The blessing of God’s presence with us in Christ is so amazing that it can sometimes seem like more than was necessary merely to secure the forgiveness of sins. Medieval Christmas carols, reeling in the giddy overstimulation of pondering the Incarnation, even praised God that Adam had sinned in Eden, since it led to the Incarnation of the Son and exaltation of the human race: “Blessed be the time that apple taken was!” And at least one important liturgical chant intones, “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

This “fortunate fall” idea is a step too far, but it’s easy to sympathize with the feeling. Theologians in the Middle Ages carried out a complicated argument over this scholastic question: If the Fall had not happened, would the Son of God have eventually taken on human nature anyway? Obviously nothing very important can hang on whether we say yes or no to such an absolutely hypothetical question. But in the course of answering it responsibly, we do find ourselves bringing to the surface a host of meaningful questions. The unspeakable blessing of the Son himself being with us in this way seems like too much of a blessing to be just part of a repair job on fallen humanity. We have a sacred intuition that some such ennoblement of human nature must have been part of God’s plan for us all along, Fall or no.

Article continues below

One reason all these questions surface here is that, while reflecting on the Atonement draws our attention to what the Son does for our salvation, reflecting specifically on the Incarnation draws our attention to who the Son of God actually is. Of course it’s possible, even necessary, to focus on who Jesus is while telling the story of his death and resurrection. But at Christmas, attending to the personhood of Christ is unavoidable. The baby we consider in his nativity is not actively doing anything, and we can only stand amazed at his divine identity.

That is why so many of the Christmas carols come back to the note of simple adoration: “Come, let us adore him.” It is also why so many of them pose questions to us like “What child is this?” Adoration for who Jesus is, rather than thanksgiving for what he does, is the secret of the strange hush that steals over us at the center of this holiday. It is why all we can do is celebrate, gather with loved ones, and exchange gifts and gratefulness.

In My Utmost For His Highest, Oswald Chambers says, “After the amazing delight and liberty of realising what Jesus Christ does, comes the impenetrable darkness of realizing Who He is.” It is impenetrable darkness because Jesus is the eternal Son of God, fully as mysterious and transcendent as God.

We have seen that the Incarnation draws us to consider Jesus Christ as taking on human nature and being the divine person of the Son among us. This means we look all the way into his full humanity and as far as we can into his true divinity. That is a vast scope, bringing humanity and divinity together in our minds. And it is why a lot of questions we might have about the full implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection are in fact answered in advance at Christmas, in its invitation to engage in incarnational theology. The child was in fact born to die. But if we have rightly observed what it means for him to have been born, we will have a better grasp of his work of dying and rising.

We typically use the word incarnation in three different senses. First, we can mean the beginning point of the Son’s assumption of human nature (his virginal conception and especially his birth). Second, we can mean the entire earthly life of Christ, from conception through ascension (what Hebrews calls “the days of Jesus’ life on earth,” Heb 5:7). Third, we can mean the state of his being the incarnate one, a state which is ongoing in his ascended humanity. All three are legitimate meanings of the word, but it helps to be alert to which sense a speaker is referring to. In particular, this distinction helps explain why Athanasius’s On the Incarnation surprises us: We may expect it to be about the first sense of incarnation (Christmas), but it turns out to be mostly about the second sense (the story of the life of Christ) with generous doses of the third sense (the ascended Lord’s ongoing ministry from the right hand of God, among his people).

Article continues below

Christmas is also bigger than Easter in a way that is especially obvious in Western culture. It is a bigger holiday, a bigger party for more people. Somehow, of all the special days in the church calendar, it is Christmas that has made its way into the public mind, taken over the secular schedule, and ensconced itself in the popular imagination. Unbelievers and semi-believers celebrate the Christmas holiday. Especially in America, even adherents of other faiths make room for this holiday and find ways to participate. A whole pantheon of not-especially-Christian characters and traditions has emerged to help extend the jolliness as far as possible: Rudolf and Frosty, Scrooge and Buddy the Elf.

At a considerable distance from the religious or theological point of Christmas, the party has taken hold. Easter, by contrast, has never been quite as popular with unbelievers. Easter eggs and pastel colors may show up in stores, but these quickly give way to simple observations of the coming of spring rather than the Resurrection. And Good Friday is strictly an affair for true believers and regular church attenders.

For some reason, people seem to think that Christmas is for everybody. G. K. Chesterton once said that popular misconceptions are nearly always right. I’m sure secular citizens are not feeling drawn to Christmas because they grasp the theology of the Incarnation—the universal good news of the Son of God taking hold of human nature. Nevertheless, Christmas has taken hold of culture. This festival of the Incarnation somehow presents itself to the world as a celebration open and available to all.

Frankly, Christmas’s secular popularity in various cultures remains a bit of a mystery to me—yet there is something profound even in its very shallowness. Why would unchurched or barely churched people join in singing, “Fa la la la la” and decking their halls with boughs of holly with such an obvious sense of well-being and goodwill, when they stand so far away from intelligent acceptance of the profound theological significance of the whole event? Characters in holiday films are perpetually seeking “the true meaning of Christmas” and almost always settling for a theologically inadequate answer.

Article continues below

But perhaps this annual seeking is itself some kind of parable. Maybe the weary world has some distant, befuddled sense that their very humanity gives them all a stake in this annual feast, this least demanding but most inviting public rehearsal of the love of God.

As a young convert to the Christian faith, I would often get grumpy (I felt it was righteous jealousy) about the way shallow, secular, seasonal merriment tended to bury the truth under tinsel and jingle bells. But now I think I am beginning to get it. Even beyond the circle of faith, Christmas spreads the rumor that God is not done with humanity. These days I can hardly even stay mad at Coca-Cola Santa or “Home for the Holidays.” They’re not exactly “on message,” theologically speaking, but I don’t expect them to be. I rejoice with them and join in their merriment, even as they have joined into a movement that they don’t fully grasp.

Similar to how Athanasius’s On the Incarnation can be great Christmas reading that turns out to not be very much about Christmas, Handel’s sacred oratorio Messiah is a much-beloved piece of Christmas music that turns out to mostly not be about Christmas. Christians and non-Christians alike gather to hear “For unto us a child is born” and the angels singing, “Glory to God” to the shepherds. But Messiah runs over two hours and includes not only the Crucifixion and Resurrection but even the Ascension, the mission of the church, the spread of the gospel, and the return of Christ (which is what “The Hallelujah Chorus” is actually about).

In the popular mind, Handel’s Messiah is about the birth of Jesus, but in reality it’s about his entire work as Savior, with its center of gravity in the Atonement. Incarnation is ordered to atonement—this is the gospel we embrace and share—but the message of the Incarnation is bigger than we often realize, and it draws people in. May it expand our own horizons as we come to adore him.

Fred Sanders is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors College at Biola University and the author of several books, including Fountain of Salvation: Trinity and Soteriology and The Deep Things of God.

[ This article is also available in Português 简体中文 繁體中文 русский, and Українська. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.