Early in my Christian pilgrimage, as a young man struggling to understand the implications of a story I had only a surface knowledge of, I stumbled onto a theological insight. For followers of Jesus, salvation was based not on his life so much as his death. Jesus could have been incarnated as a man and been crucified within days. That’s all that was needed for his death to serve as an atonement, but that’s not what happened. God clearly wanted to instruct us about how we should live in this life, too.
“The Raising of Lazarus” by Eduard von Gebhardt, from 1896. Credit Corbis, via Getty Images
He became not just the author of the human drama but an actor in it.
According to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus had a life story — born in a manger in Bethlehem, later moving to Nazareth, and dying in his 30s, just outside Jerusalem. The fact that we’re so familiar with the story has inured us to just how jarring and unexpected it was. God came to earth “not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire,” in the words of Philip Yancey, author of “The Jesus I Never Knew,” but in humility, without power or wealth, in a world marked by strife and terror.
Jesus spent his infancy in Egypt as a refugee, Mr. Yancey points out, and the circumstances of his birth raised the specter of scandal. His life, then, was a profoundly human one, involving work and rest, friendships and betrayals, delight and sorrow. This has deep implications for how Christians should understand and approach life.
For one thing, the Incarnation dignifies the everyday. There has been a temptation throughout Christian history to denigrate the things of this world, from material comforts to the human body, viewing them as lowly and tainted. But this concept is at odds with what Jesus’ life taught, which is that while worldly things can be corrupted, they can also be elevated and sanctified.
Consider that Jesus was incarnated in a human body. He was a child in need of care and protection. He was a carpenter, a craftsman who worked creatively with his hands. His first miracle was at the wedding in Cana, where he transformed water into wine. There was joy and purpose to be found in the commonplace. The Incarnation also bestowed worth on people considered contemptible, unessential and valueless — “the least of these,” as Jesus put it.
Indeed, one of the indictments of him by the religious authorities of his day was that he was a “friend of sinners.” Jesus’ love was “undiscriminating and inclusive,” according to the writer Garry Wills, “not gradated and exclusive.” He spent most of his time with those who were forsaken, poor, powerless and considered unclean. In a patriarchal society, Jesus gave women an honored place. He not only associated with them, but they were among his disciples, the object of his public praise, the first people he spoke to after his resurrection.
The most intense confrontations Jesus had weren’t with those with loose morals but with religious leaders, the upholders of the “holiness code” whom he called out for their arrogance, hypocrisy and lack of mercy. In the Temple courts, Jesus told the chief priests, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” In the words of Professor Wills, “He walks through social barriers and taboos as if they were cobwebs.”
The Incarnation also underscores the importance of relationships, and particularly friendships. The Rev. James Forsyth, the winsome and gifted pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church in Virginia, which my family attends, says friendship is not a luxury; it is at the very essence of who we are. The three persons of the Christian Godhead — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — speak to the centrality of community. When we are in a friendship, according to Mr. Forsyth, we are “participating in something divine.” That is, fellowship and friendship were present in the Trinity and are therefore of immense worth to us. I’ve experienced that in my own life, when friends served as God’s proxies, dispensing grace I could not receive in solitude.
In some rather remarkable verses in the New Testament, Jesus told his disciples: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” God’s emissary on earth had a core group of intimate friends — Peter, James, John and perhaps his most faithful friend, Mary of Magdala. These are people Jesus confided in, relied on, celebrated with and mourned with. He not only praised friendship; he modeled it. It’s difficult for us now to appreciate the shock it was considered then — that the “image of the invisible God,” in the words of St. Paul, not only didn’t compromise his divinity by taking on human flesh, he actually found succor in human relationships.
The Incarnation is also evidence that God is not an impersonal, indifferent deity. Instead of maintaining a divine distance from life’s experiences, including its grief and hardship, Jesus shared in them. This can be seen in the moving events surrounding the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany. Here is the account from the Gospel of John:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
In the account in John, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The point here, though, is that Jesus not only had sympathy with those who were suffering but experienced grief to the point of tears. Contrary to the “health and wealth” gospel, which argues that God will deliver prosperity to those who have faith in him, Christianity does not promise an end to suffering even among the most faithful, at least not yet. But it does promise that God can bestow mercy amid our struggles, that in time he can repair the broken areas of our lives.