All the suffering we have seen recently—the dead Palestinian children, the casualties of civil war in Syria and the Congo, and the personal travails of so many—makes me think that what human beings must endure demands what the Incarnation offers.

This doctrine divides monotheists. For Jews and Muslims the idea that God himself became incarnate pollutes or drags down his divinity. For me, and for many other Christians, it would be intolerable if the God responsible for our being and, in some direct or indirect way, for our suffering were completely exempt from suffering, from how it feels to suffer what we do. If God is not tied into this life, if the particular suffering of humanity is not central to his own being, then something about creation itself is violated. One of the reasons Christianity and Buddhism stand out for me among religions is that both put suffering at the center.

The idea of incarnation would be scandalous enough even without the Cross. The idea that God takes on the fullness of creation, assuming it in mortal flesh, is shocking—and should be seen as shocking. But would a God who is not with us to this extent, a God who is distant from our suffering, be any less shocking?

The Incarnation is consistent with the confrontation between Job and God, and Job’s willingness to question. Job is answered with what amounts to sarcasm—God is hard on a suffering man. That God even answers Job, however, is itself a kind of mercy: why should God condescend to answer suffering humanity at all? The God of deism would not, we assume.

God’s willingness to answer Job is the beginning of a mystery that deepens with the Incarnation. What is revealed in Christ is an identification so unexpected and, in its way, terrifying that we can’t fathom it. It opens up a new way of thinking and speaking about God, one that begins with Paul and continues with later witnesses, Augustine being one of the most impressive. Too many people see the Gospels as prime witnesses and Paul as a later commentator. It’s easy to see why, for narrative reasons, the compilers of the New Testament began with the Gospels and moved on to Paul, but in fact the earliest New Testament writing is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. All the Gospels were written after Paul’s epistles.

What is astonishing is Paul’s voice—new, I think, in the ancient world. I don’t think you can find another voice this direct and confident, or another voice that claims an unmediated experience of God. I have long thought that the truth of Christianity comes down to the question of whether Paul was crazy or not. He made Christianity autobiographical, and he made its message urgent. Although resurrection was part of Jewish belief—one that separated the Pharisees and Sadducees, for example—it was peripheral to the Jews in a way it could not be for Christians, because of the Incarnation. As Christians, we have to see one another as people for whom Christ died, people joined to his life and death in baptism, people who, because of him, hope for resurrection, for he is the first-born of many brothers and sisters. As he showed in the parables, Jesus knows us, knows that we see our lives as stories, and so can understand the Pharisee and the tax collector, the prodigal son and merciful father.

More than knowing the flesh better than we could hope to know it ourselves, Jesus invites us to share divine life. The mystery of the Incarnation goes beyond us. Somehow it involves the whole universe: “We know the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now” (Romans 8:22). In Paul there is a sense I find nowhere else in Scripture of someone who has been gobsmacked by the discovery of who God is. He spent the rest of his life responding to that discovery.

There is much to celebrate in what unites monotheists. We believe in one God who is responsible for all that exists, who knows us and calls us to live good lives and to worship. Our belief in the Incarnation, however, separates us from other monotheists, and it is something we should rejoice in. We should not hold this belief in any triumphalistic way; that would be heading in exactly the wrong direction, because this is not something we brought about, nor something we can be said to possess or even comprehend. It is, rather, a joy we have been allowed to know.

Published in the 2012-12-21 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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