The Incarnation Is the Rule, Not the Exception
Last month, my husband Matt and I attended Eugene Peterson’s funeral in Montana. We studied under Peterson at Regent College and stayed in close touch over the years. For someone who sold millions of books, translated into multiple languages, his funeral was a wonderfully ordinary affair: a small, local church with fraying red carpet, a local slightly-wet-behind-the-ears pastor who gave the homily, stalwart hymns, and a casket made by his sons.
The simplicity of the event represented everything Peterson taught Matt and me (and many others): Press into what God has already given us in the ordinary people we love, the ordinary church we attend, and the ordinary sacraments we have been given. These unpromising things will keep us rooted in Jesus, despite the temptations around us.
In his books, talks, and sermons, Peterson railed not against the temptations in the world but rather the temptations within the church. And the temptations are plenty. But the way to avoid these temptations, he said, is not to leave the church and all the ugly things about it but instead to stay close and be transformed by it. “The antidote,” he once pointed out to us in a letter when we were knee-deep in solitary ministry in Scotland, “is near the poison.”
One of the key poisons in the American church is the temptation to be extraordinary and visibly radical in order to avoid being “lukewarm,” which more often than not means living a faster pace of life and becoming worn out to prove your authenticity to Jesus (or to yourself).
We find many antidotes within our own ecclesial treasury that counterbalance this tendency. The church over the centuries has made saints of certain individuals precisely because of their ordinariness and their ability to discover God right in the middle of the quotidian. Brother Lawrence was sainted despite performing no miracles. He was made “lord of the pots and pans” and spent his life as a glorified short-order cook and bottle washer who learned to “turn my little omelets in the pan for the love of God.” The mystic Therese of Lisieux and many others, too, were similarly revered for their simple piety and sainted because of, not despite, their ordinariness.
More than figures of Christian history, however, we find our ordinary posterchild in Jesus himself.
Theologians have always had difficulty figuring out how to talk theologically about our humanity and also the humanity of Christ. Calvin begins his Institutes with the confession that he still didn’t know how to begin. “Our wisdom consists nearly entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” That tension defines the mystery of the Incarnation—God’s life and our lives are forever bound, such that we can no longer think of them separately.
Early on in my theological career, I made a decision to study what it means to be human. I walked into the Regent College library, past the giant shelves on creation and the imago Dei, past all of the shelves on anthropology and the sciences that study human behavior, and went instead to the section labeled Christology. Why? Because, as Karl Barth says, Jesus is “the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity” and is therefore “the one possibility of discovering” the true nature of what it means to be human. This was Jesus’ mission—to reveal God to us and to reveal us to ourselves.
Nowhere is this revelation more evident than in the birth of Christ.
The story of the Incarnation is shockingly domestic. When he comes to earth, God places himself not in a palace but in a family. It is there, in the confines of siblings and parents, unnoticed by the whole world, that the new creation begins.
Here, then, is the surprising truth of it all: The Incarnation is the rule, not the exception. God enters into the world and engages with us on creation’s terms. He uses ordinary, created things to bless us, save us, minister to us. Our ordinary humanity is the place he has chosen to meet with us. As Luther says, “The Spirit cannot be with us except in material and physical things such as the Word, water and Christ’s body and in his saints on earth.”
Although Philippians 2 tells us that Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,” his condescension into human flesh doesn’t mean that it was disgusting or embarrassing for him. We shouldn’t think that he “pretended” to be like us for our weak perceptions. Nor should we think of the Incarnation as humiliating for Jesus, who himself created our flesh and called it “good.” (The theological use of “humiliation” is a scholastic category referring to a portion of Jesus’ descent that has perhaps colored our perception of being human more than we realize).
Instead, we have to understand Jesus’ birth as purposeful and beautiful. When we do, the Incarnation can no longer be seen as a temporary mission where Christ “stooped” to take on our feeble flesh simply in order to get a job done. If God’s whole plan is for us to be fully inhabited by him, then the Incarnation is a stunning picture of what humans were designed for. It is God’s final blessing upon creation.
We might understand this theological idea in the abstract, but nonetheless, it’s quite difficult to live out. Our culture (particularly Christian culture) often values being seen and acknowledged, especially for the “serious” Christian things we can do. We want to be useful to others and to God. We want to influence society. There will always be siren calls to skip the slow stuff and get right down to doing God’s dramatic business for him. These siren calls often disparage the ordinary and relational ways that God grows us and others.
By contrast, when we live our lives in communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit, our addiction to the extraordinary vanishes. The restless pursuit of the exceptional is often an indicator that we’re looking for ways to escape who we are, and in that sense, the ordinary can be deeply purifying. It requires us to engage ourselves, our limits, and our fantasies and re-integrate them into Christ. We’re able to identify God’s loving presence in the midst of our “normal” daily relationships and learn to enjoy being faithful and obedient.
When we’re anchored in the ordinary, God can show up in extraordinary ways. In other words, our redemption lies not outside of the mundane but within it. “From the moment when [Christ] assumed the form of a servant,” wrote Calvin, “he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”
That process began in the Bethlehem manger. It continued as he was launched into 30 years of hiddenness, where his salvific work was to be human. Those hidden years in a backwater town are part of our salvation and our re-creation. This means that our humanity does not get in the way of our relationship with Christ but is, in fact, what we have in common with him.
Our job, then, is not to be extraordinary but to receive the extraordinary blessing that the Incarnation brings. Christ’s work was then and is now the same: to sanctify this ordinary life and make it a place of communion once again.
Julie Canlis is the author of A Theology of the Ordinary (2017) and Calvin’s Ladder (2012), winner of a Templeton Prize and a Christianity Today Award of Merit. She collaborated with her husband, Matt, on the documentary Godspeed.