Atonement begins with Incarnation

Photo: Artyom Korshunov, Unsplash. Photo: Artyom Korshunov, Unsplash.

During Advent, we remember that God has drawn close to us — God in flesh.

In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel assures Mary that God has come close — “The Lord is with you” — before delivering the message that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and that she will conceive and bear a son, who “will be called the Son of God.”

In a third-century sermon, Origen of Alexandria said that we are like Mary, the love of the Holy Spirit overshadowing us as we bear witness to Christ, the gospel alive in each of us. “When you have been made worthy of the shadow,” Origen preached, Christ “will come to you.”

That’s the good news: that God is with you. All the rest of what we say about God, about ourselves, about the world, is a commentary on this one truth, this simple yet mysterious reality: that God is with us, that God is with you. God has chosen life with you.

Advent means God will not be God without us. The Incarnation of God in Jesus means that God will not leave us nor forsake us. God cannot leave us or forsake us, because God has chosen human life as God’s own life.

In the life of Mary, we see the eternal decision of God to be for us, to be on our side, to join our human struggle, to share in our suffering, our joy and our love.

During Advent we hear the announcement of God’s promise that nothing will separate us from the love of God.
In this announcement is the promise of atonement — “at-one-ment” — ­being at one with God, united with God, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, who comes upon us now as it did to Mary.

Theorists of atonement focus their attention on the significance of Christ’s crucifixion. The better ones at least include a discussion of his resurrection.

But all of them usually neglect to read the Gospel narratives as stories of atonement.

They especially ignore the beginning of the stories, the Incarnation, as the starting point for theologies of atonement.

“Understood with reference to the Incarnation, atonement returns to its English lexical roots: at-one-ment — a sense of the atonement that now can no longer be limited to the cross,” the theologian Kathryn Tanner argues in her book, Christ the Key.

“Humanity is at one with the divine in Jesus. This is true on the cross as much as everywhere else in Jesus’ life, and that is what is saving about it.”

The life of Jesus, from birth to resurrection, is the gift of salvation — the whole narrative as a description of the mechanisms of our atonement.

“My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon prays to God in the temple precincts as he holds in his arms the infant Jesus (2:30).

To see the newborn Jesus is to glimpse God’s salvation. His life ­reveals God’s at-one-ment with ­humanity.

The words of assurance that the angel offers Mary are also for us — “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) — because she is our representative.

She models our response to the advent of Christ in our lives.

She reveals to us the posture of discipleship.

She welcomes God into the world.

She readies herself for the bewilderment of this mystery, the wonders of an unimaginable life:

God in the flesh, God within her.

And she is us; we are Mary. We may not know what this gospel will do to our lives, but we’re prepared to believe God’s promises — to trust the Spirit who leads us into a way of life where nothing is certain except for the Word of God alive in us.

During Advent, may the power of the Most High overshadow you. May the Holy Spirit draw close as you await the birth of Christ’s life in your own — the arrival of the gospel: God’s salvation, the offer of righteous peace and merciful justice in a human form, in Jesus Christ, whose love is the life of creation.

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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