In the previous piece (Why Incarnation? – Part 1), I discussed the Nativity of Jesus as the means by which we understand what God is really like. But there’s another equally pivotal layer to the Incarnation. A personal story as a way of getting at it:
Coming from a Land Down Under
At our staff Christmas lunch this week, my colleagues put me on ‘The Naughty List’ for ‘wreaking cross-cultural havoc with my American accent and Australian attitude.’ I realised they were right: after being married to an Australian for 15 years and living in Melbourne for 6, I have indeed adopted an Australian perspective on almost everything that matters. (The accent is debatable. My family in New Jersey certainly believes I’ve lost most of my American accent.)
It wasn’t without some effort. Multiple viewings of Crocodile Dundee over the years sadly failed to soften the culture shock that awaited me in my first few months in Australia. To certain aspects of Australian life, I adapted straight away. For instance, it was easy to get on board with Melbourne’s coffee culture. You can’t walk ten paces around here without ending up in a cafe or bakery that serves top-quality lattes, cappuccinos and ‘flatties’ (flat whites). Hell, even our local swimming pool’s canteen (snack bar) has a massive cafe-style espresso machine. Enjoy your over-roasted Starbucks, America.
To other aspects – the intangibles – assimilating can be more complicated. The generally casual and carefree Australian attitude toward life, work, politics, and dress; the inclination to ‘take the piss out of’ (to playfully insult) yourself and your mates; the notion of ‘tall poppy syndrome’, cutting down anyone with the pretension to rise above the rest of us: all of these can challenge American ways of thinking and behaving.
Gradually, though, and not always intentionally, I began to talk like an Australian, to act like an Australian, to think like an Australian. By the time I became a bona fide citizen, I was already Australian in everything but name. My co-workers and friends at the recent staff lunch perceived that through living as an Australian, working with and befriending Australians, I more fully understood Australians.
Can God Learn
The same can be said about the Incarnation. We could hardly expect God to understand us without living as one of us.
I can hear someone saying, ‘God is omniscient (i.e. God knows everything). God understood us well before the life of Jesus.’ I suppose that, to some degree, this wholesome Sunday-school response is accurate. God, as creator, certainly knows and has always known us in ways we don’t know ourselves. Yet, as we are all well aware, we comprehend what we experience personally in far greater depth than what we only read about or see from a distance.
Can this be true of God as well? The crucial question, then, is ‘Can God learn?’
I haven’t encountered much in scripture that precludes God from learning or growing in understanding via new experiences. In fact, the New Testament writers speak often of an altered relationship between God and humankind through the life and work of Jesus. And the alteration doesn’t appear to be all one way. The author of Hebrews has much to say about Jesus experiencing and embracing the ups and downs of human life and ‘tasting death’ for all of us. As a result, the writer states, he ‘sympathises with our weaknesses’.
God was well aware of our weaknesses prior to the Incarnation, but couldn’t possibly sympathise with them. Such sympathy required a 30-year, flesh-and-blood encounter with human joy and misery, human triumphs and trials, human relationships and complications, human life and human death.
To me, this is the most enthralling facet of Christmas, of Jesus’ Nativity. This is God making an astounding and unexpected move to know, to understand and to relate to us!
Veni, veni, Emmanuel.