In his classic work, Knowing God, Packer writes that the incarnation is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. Referring to John 1:14, he says that at the first Christmas the world beheld the most profound and unfathomable depths of Christian revelation: God took on human flesh and was born. The eternal Son, who was with the Father, through whom the world was created and by whom all life is sustained, became a man (John 1:1-4, 14).
However, what makes the Christmas event spectacular is not just this incredible mystery, but also its monumental message for our world: God condescends to make himself known, and to save. At the incarnation God comes to his creation to graciously restore our fallen world. Athanasius provides a vivid analogy of this in On the Incarnation, picturing God as a mighty king who walks out to his people, who have revolted against him despite his benevolence. Though the intricacies of incarnation might be perplexing, we ought to immerse ourselves in the good news that God himself came to save man. Echoing the German reformer, Melanchthon, sometimes we do better to adore the mysteries of deity than to investigate them, for knowing Christ and his benefits is greater than apprehending the mystery of his being. To return to John, “No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
What do we learn in this gracious and penultimate revelation of God? In the incarnation, God’s wilful lessening of himself in order to save his lost creation, we see something theologians have called the ‘humiliation of Christ.’ Too often we reduce Christ’s suffering to his betrayal, trial and cross. But at the incarnation we must hear the unmistakable note of sacrifice, which resonates throughout the life of Christ. Paul saw it that way, in Philippians 2:6-8 he says the Son humbled himself, becoming a servant he made himself nothing. Jonathan Edwards believed this infinitely great sacrifice was the only way to bridge the infinite gap between God and man. Though Christ’s sacrifice is most pronounced at Calvary, we cannot separate the Son’s humiliation in dying for us from the sacrifice he shouldered in living as one of us. In both Christ’s life and death we see the grace of our Lord, for though he was rich for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). That is the magnificent message of the incarnation: God humiliates himself to bring us to himself, to restore his defiant creation and save us, who were lost.
We should reflect deeply on the meaning of the incarnation and rediscover real ‘Christmas spirit.’ I am not referring to the gaudy sentimentalism so prevalent today. This cheapened ‘Christmas spirit’ – going no further than the exchanging of gifts, selective generosity and some goodwill to all men – is shorter lived than the Christmas season itself and so very far from the model of Christ we are called to imitate: continual and selfless pursuit of others’ interests (Philippians 2:3-5). The entire life of our Lord was wilful humiliation in order that many might come to know God and be saved. He is the king who abandons his magisterial throne room in heaven to talk with disobedient subjects, offering them gracious forgiveness and a part in his glorious restoration of all things. The Christian life is the practise of continual self-emptying for the sake of others, imitating God’s willingness to be humiliated and impoverished out of a love for those who do not know his gracious forgiveness. True ‘Christmas spirit’ is inseparably tied to the Christmas message. The Christian life must take its form from the humiliation of Christ; to paraphrase Michael Gorman, ‘To be in Christ is to be a living exegesis of Christ’s narrative, a new performance of the original drama of humiliation, before exaltation, the voluntary renunciation of rights and selfish gain in order to serve and obey.’