Andy Hawes on the Atonement and the Incarnation

Last Christmas Eve a parishioner presented the parish church with a new stable for the Christmas crib. He had beautifully made it of oak. He was rather anxious about it because without any consultation he had superimposed a cross made of pine on the frame of the building. “It didn’t seem to make sense without it” he explained. Later, I was able to reassure him by pointing out where Christ lay in an orthodox icon of the Nativity: he lies in the manger, Mary beside him, in a dark cave; the new born Jesus lies with death already pressing around him; the cave prefiguring the tomb of Holy Saturday

For many people the way into the mystery of the incarnation is not Christmas Day but Good Friday. Here a man dies because he is a man; he is a man subject to and victim of human relationships and the world made by them. On Good Friday we encounter a man alone in despair and agony. Yet on Good Friday we meet a man whose death has a meaning because he is God.

The passion and crucifixion of Jesus is not easily assimilated by mind or imagination. The cross of Jesus pierces that place in us where reason and reality, knowing and understanding leave a void. In the crucifixion Jesus is rendered barely human by humanity. It is impossible to master such savagery and encounter such darkness with the mind. It is in the guts that the depths of God’s purpose speaks to us within the roaring tumult of pain. It is in the same place, in the borderland of our experience, that the incarnation resounds as a saving fact.

Without the mystery of the Incarnation; without the fulness of God being pleased to dwell in the betrayed and crucified Jesus, there is no light in the dark, no meaning in the pain, no hope in the dying. The Christian Gospel has no power if we can only read God back into Golgotha; the Incarnation proclaims that God was in Christ from the beginning. The emphasis in modernist theology of seeing a vindication of the death of Jesus in the disciples’ subjective experience of the Resurrection misses the point completely. As Saint Paul teaches, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and this reconciliation takes place in one body by the Cross.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has power to save because it has the power to turn the world upside down: death to life, division to reconciliation, disease to wholeness. It is the Cross that is the axis of this revolution. Yet this cosmic re-ordering of creation is only made possible because in the Incarnation, in God being made man in Jesus Christ, the power by which God subdues all things to himself enters the created order beginning a process of which the cross is the central act.

The Incarnation is the impact in history of God’s initiative to change all things. The Gospel for Christmas Day takes us back to the beginning, to the eternal purposes of God, yet the Word who was God came into the world. The one through whom all things came to be becomes Himself; identified with a particular time, place and community. The Incarnation is a statement in history of God’s eternal purpose; it is the universal seen in the particular.

At the Cross of Jesus stood Mary his mother, her presence there profound evidence that Incarnation and Crucifixion are one. She is there at the birth and the death. Mary is the moment to which the eternal word spoke. It is her “yes” and the belief that of her God himself took flesh, that makes Christ truly human. The Incarnation is not simply an imposition and invasion by the Almighty into humanity: the Creator manipulating the creature. The Incarnation is the fruit of Grace – of a young girl’s whole being open to the possibilities of God; of the taking up of humanity into the Divine. Mary who embraces Jesus in birth and death witnesses that the Incarnation is not an act of denial of humanity; it is the way by which God makes it possible for us to be fully human; from beginning to end the human life of Christ is a celebration of the ordinary. We are reminded that God is at home in our lives.

It is the case that Christmas Day holds more appeal than Good Friday, and that is not surprising. There will be hundreds of people at midnight mass brought there by all manner of motives but even there among the beer-warmed heads and awkwardness the great mystery of the Incarnation is proclaimed and seen. We hear Jesus’ words “on the night he was betrayed” and proclaim his death until he comes. There is no doubt that “it was for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”. How right he was to put the Cross on the crib.

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional House and Vicar of Edenham and Witham on the Hill.