Whether it’s sleuthing around with G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown or the following the adventures of Nancy Drew, or The Hardy Boys, there’s something enjoyable about a good mystery.
Scripture itself is no stranger to mystery: the three persons and one divine essence of the Holy Trinity, Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and, did Adam have a belly button? Just to name a few.
Scriptural mysteries are always God’s mysteries revealed when and where and how he chooses by his grace.
This is abundantly true when it comes to the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. We have arrived at a season in the life of the Church that is rich in sacred mystery, the season of Advent. We celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ first advent in human flesh. We confess the mystery of his second advent in glory. And while we await the resurrection and the return of our king, we receive the mystery of his advent in his holy word and sacraments.
Sacred mysteries, however, are unlike other mysteries. They are neither cases to be solved like a classic caper with Shaggy, Scooby Doo, and the gang. Nor are they riddles to be perfectly answered like Bilbo and Gollum beneath the Misty Mountains. Rather, sacred mysteries are God’s gift, given to reveal his grace and to rejoice in his mercy.
Throughout the sacred Scriptures, and in the Gospels in particular, God unveils his plan and promises in the person and work of Jesus. As the story of Jesus’ life unfolds, so too, does our salvation in Jesus.
In Christ’s incarnation, God reveals his great love for us. He unveils his unexpected gracious ways. In Christ, God reveals not only that he loves us, but also his desire to save us and his promise to be with us.
In Christ’s incarnation, the Creator becomes part of his creation. The playwright steps onto the stage as the lead actor. The invisible God makes himself visible, tangible, knowable. The God who cannot be seen by sinful humanity walks, talks, eats, and drinks with sinners and for sinners. The God who is beyond our imagination takes on the image, form, likeness, and nature of man. As John declares, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
As the author of Hebrews writes, Jesus is, “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3).
Or, as St. Paul proclaims in Colossians, Jesus, “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16).
Christ’s incarnation also reveals the mystery that God’s existence is not simply a figment of man’s imagination, but a trustworthy, verifiable fact of history. Jesus Christ was born, not “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away,” but in the days of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2).
In Christ’s incarnation, God has toes that grew dusty walking the Judean wilderness. He has fingernails, underneath which, gathered dirt and grime. He has hands that were calloused, bruised, pierced and bloody for you.
In Christ’s incarnation, writes Holly Ordway, we find “the deepest and most life-giving paradox of the faith: that the One by whom all things were made condescended to enter into the messy, sinful world of ordinary men and women” (97).
A mystery indeed. And yet what is beyond our imagination, God has accomplished in Christ’s incarnation. What we deemed impossible, God has made possible as he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. Jesus is both the image bearer and the image giver. In Jesus’ incarnation we are redeemed and re-imaged.
Not only that, in Christ’s incarnation God tips his hand and reveals a glimpse into his own imagination. Who of us could ever have imagined that God would become a weak, vulnerable, suffering man? And yet that’s exactly what God does. The incarnation is not beneath God. It is his delight to dwell with us and save us. For our sake, God puts himself in a box – or rather, he assumes, takes on, a human body. He is laid in a manger for us. Hung on a cross for us. Risen and glorified for us. The God who by his Word created Adam, now comes in the flesh of Adam. The God who made man in his image, is himself the very image of God in human flesh.
And in this way, God unites the incarnation and the imagination. Both are gifts from the same giving, gracious Lord of all. In Mary’s womb, as in Bethlehem’s manger, God unites heaven and earth, God and man, and all that it means to be man (save sin). This includes our imagination because Christ’s incarnation hallows all of human life, including the imagination.
Now, in Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, when we imagine God, we picture the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We see him crucified upon the cross. We stand with Thomas and the disciples, as we will one day, and gaze upon those glorious scars. We also see Christ in our neighbor, where our God’s gift of the imagination is placed in service in our daily vocations in the home, church, and society.
This Advent and Christmas, as you hear and read the Scriptures, as you sing and listen to the hymns and songs of the season, use God’s gift of your imagination as you rejoice in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation for you. Ponder the greatness and the graciousness of this mystery: God became man for you, and Christ is born for you.