The incarnation. Advent is a celebration of the incarnation, of God who became human flesh in Jesus Christ. The advent of Jesus, the accounts of his birth and life and death — all are glimpses of God, announcements of what God’s presence looks like in our world and in our lives.
Advent announces that this world is the place where God will dwell. The home of God is here, on Earth. Our lives are not foreign to God; earthly life is not alien to God’s life.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth summarized the meaning of the incarnation as God’s yes to creation, a pledge of solidarity to human life. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is God’s affirmation of humanity: God has taken our side, God is for us, God will live God’s life for the sake of ours.
Irenaeus of Smyrna, a bishop in the second century, said all of this better than anyone else: “The glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” That’s the significance of the incarnation, of God becoming human: for us to find ourselves in the glory of God as we become fully alive.
We are living testimonies. With our love we testify to what God is about, to what God does, to who God is. Our life is a kind of worship, the exaltation of God manifest in our daily acts of love, our ordinary and extraordinary care for others. All of this is God’s love incarnate in us.
This doesn’t mean everything we do is good for our world or good for us. That should be obvious, especially as we come to terms with the environmental destruction our species has caused. The world, as it is, is not the way things should be. Our lives, as they are, are not necessarily the way they should be.
God’s affirmation — God’s yes, as Barth would say — is not a commitment to the status quo, to life as it is. To commit ourselves to the incarnation is not submission to life as we know it, to life as we want it, but a commitment to the reign of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s fierce mercy.
That’s why Mary’s Magnificat, in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, is so important. Her words are here at the beginning of the story of Jesus as a framework to understand everything else that happens. Mary tells us what Jesus will mean for our world and for each of our lives.
She rejoices in God’s promises: to save her, to look with favor upon her lowly status, to be on her side.
This hope in God’s affirmation of her life is also a word of judgment. God’s mercy involves judgment. The incarnation won’t reinforce the way things are.
The presence of God in Jesus will shake the foundations of the world. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, Mary prophesies in her song, and the lowly will be lifted up. The hungry will have enough to eat, and God will banish the wealthy (Luke 1:52-53).
Mary gets specific about what this child will mean for the world: God’s mercy, Christ’s salvation, will involve judgment. It will be a decisive no to all the ways we harm each other, a pronouncement against the evils of this world that sneak into our lives.
The advent of Christ is a commissioning to belong to the world of Mary’s song — to belong to her prayer, her dream, her vision for a world turned upside down, turned right-side up: all things restored to God’s justice, the goodness of creation renewed for all of us, where there will be no more rich or poor because no one will have too much, which means everyone will have enough.
The incarnation is God’s promise to be with us, to transform us, to lead us into God’s life — a life which, as we look toward the manger in Bethlehem, is vulnerable, dependent and fragile.
If that manger is what God’s presence looks like, then what does it mean for us to be present to each other? To be present as a sign of God’s presence?
The gospel, as we approach Bethlehem during Advent, is this: to know again — this year, with all that has changed in us, with all that has changed in our world — that the one who created us also loves us. This love has been made flesh. We will know God’s incarnate love when we love each other.