Whose Incarnation are We Preparing For?

There are a lot of jokes about theologians being bad at math. Most of these refer to the way that numbers are used in thinking about God in the doctrine of the Trinity. But Trinitarian theology is, despite its oddity, not the hardest idea to think in theology. It’s not even close.

I think that that honor belongs to something that most people, most Christians, don’t even think much about when they say it: God is creator.  We say this at the beginning of the creed in reference to the Father, again in the middle in reference to the Son, and again in the 3rd article in different words to speak about the Spirit. God is creator. But why would I say that this is a difficult idea to hold onto?

Christian theology argues not only that God makes the earth, but that God creates it out of nothing (ex nihilo), and that therefore God is not part of the creation. God is not a guy who found a pile of materials and rearranged them, but is the source of everything, the ground of being, the creator.

If this is true, though, it means that God is unfathomably other to everything else. Absolutely different. We call this idea the “Creator-creation distinction” and it is a red thread running often unnoticed through Christian theology. One way of naming it is to say that there is no category into which God and any other thing can be placed. Again, this seems easy, even obvious: we regularly say that God is not male or female, not old or young. We even have whole branches of theology dedicated to helping us think about how we can think about a God who is so totally other.

But if we stop and try to take in the import of this idea, things get weird really quickly. God is not a being, because that’s a category to which other things, including us, belong. Now, try to imagine what it means to say that God is not a being. Classical theology says that God “is to be” or “is is-ness” as a way of reminding itself that even the fact that God is doesn’t mean that God inhabits the category of “things that are” with us.

Even after we get a vision of what this might mean, it’s really hard to remember as we pray, do theology, and live. We keep finding ourselves imagining God as a being-among-beings, doing things the way that other beings do. Sure, we think of God as the most powerful among beings, the wisest, the most loving, but still, we think of God as one of us.

Truth be told, nothing can be said about such a God according to normal rules. Catholics have historically talked about the doctrine of analogy to underline this point. Everything we say about God is an analogy, which doesn’t mean it’s not real, but that it’s meaningful not in the same way that other statements are. It’s not even watered-down normal language; it’s broken language that points beyond itself truly. And this is where the Incarnation, the great feast we’re preparing to celebrate comes on stage. Doesn’t the fact that God became human solve this problem for us? Jesus is God, after all.

The Incarnation certainly changes things, but not by eliminating the problem. The truth is that the God who becomes incarnate in Jesus is still wholly other as God. In Jesus, the Word is fully human and fully divine, but not in a way that makes God less strange. The Incarnation doesn’t make divinity an object like other objects in the world, the creator-creation distinction remains. Instead, we have to invent another grammar to talk about the interrelation of creator and creation in Jesus that we call the communicatio idiomatum. This leads us to say things like, “In Jesus, the immortal God dies. In Jesus, the human is eternal.”

So why put all the work into thinking about the differences between God and the creation? Well, for one, if we want to understand how God acts in the world, as happens in a particular way in the liturgy, we have to remember that the God who acts is creator. This means a number of things: first, that there is no human action, no person, no thing, that is not always dependent on God for its ongoing being. Even our freedom is dependent on the ongoing action of God who creates and sustains the world and its inhabitants, doing so in a way that makes room for us to act.

It also means that if grace names the relationship between God and the world, then grace is not a thing that God gives us in the sacraments. Rather, the sacraments are the instruments that God uses to make us into a body that is in relationship with himself. We confess the church to be the Body of Christ. God unites people to that body through the sacraments, especially in each Eucharist we receive. The body is Christ’s, and in it we are united to the life of the Triune God, which is a life of incomprehensible love.

In a sense, this is only possible because God is so beautifully, surprisingly other. Our lives, our wills, our needs are not in competition with the creator God. They are fulfilled in union with the God who made us for himself. No other relationships in our life can be like this because there is nothing else like God. Even when we glimpse the beauty of it, it is as St. Paul says, “in a mirror darkly.”

So, as we wait in the dark of Advent for the Feast of the Incarnation of the Word, it might be helpful to remind ourselves about the strangeness of the creator God who we will reverence in the manger. Who is not bound by the rules and limitations that put us in conflict with each other, but who desires to draw the entirety of the world to himself beginning with the little ones. We look forward to the day when the creation will be freed from futility and made one with the God who made it to be in relationship with himself.

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2 comments

    1. Yes! Not even not “not solely” — not at all.
      Except in Jesus, where the logic of the communicatio idiomatum applies.

      It is, however, in current idiomatic English very difficult to speak of a personal “being” without a gendered pronoun. Have tried to eliminate them above, but wasn’t entirely successful.

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