Implications of the Incarnation: God Confirms His Sacramental Gifts
Big or small, potential or certain, the despair we may grapple with during this time of year tends to find its end in the fact that things are not as they should be.
This Advent, we've been taking time to reflect on a few of the many implications of Christ's incarnation - ways in which God's descent to us in the manger, and life, death, and resurrection on the cross substantiate the faith we confess in him, and the hope we hold for our future when he returns to us, once again.
And during a time of the year meant to be filled with light and cheer but too often overshadowed by brokenness and darkness, I am particularly grateful for a God who hasn't just come to us in bodily form, but a God who has - and continues to give - his body and blood to us. A God who is tactile, not philosophical.
Early one-morning last week, I felt myself overwhelmed with a sense of doom about the coming weeks: the family expectations around the holidays, a sense (gathered from a quick social media scroll) that political uproar about issues like abortion and COVID were about to start anew, and an urgency to get my house ready for the arrival of our second son (who is due to join us mid-January). In one way or another, each of these small anxieties isn't entirely based on reality, but instead on my fear of the future.
I can quickly find myself in a state of anxiety or dread when little things like those listed above pile on top of each other. Perhaps you can relate, or perhaps you find yourself in a place this Advent where it's not small anxieties, but very present pain, sin, or even death itself that overshadows you.
In discussing the very specific pain brought on by the confusion of law and gospel in his article recap on the Mars Hill podcast earlier this week, Dave Zahl pointed out that such pain is not in any way hypothetical. “That wreckage is not theoretical. Nor is it confined to Ivory Tower squabbling. It looks like estrangement, unemployment, divorce, panic attacks, nihilism, and self-harm,” he says.
This was a secondary point made by Zahl, but it’s one I can’t stop thinking about. Sometimes, even the smallest effect of sin can permeate our day-to-day thoroughly. Regardless of how hard we may try to contain it, sin is not good about remaining confined or only “possibly hurtful.” And this includes the way in which we experience even potential anxieties, fears, and despair. In other (and much more obvious) words: sin and its effects are real. So real, in fact, that they can’t simply be managed or meditated away.
Big or small, potential or certain, the despair we may grapple with during this time of year tends to find its end in the fact that things are not as they should be. Our lives do not suddenly change on December 1 to reflect a “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” mentality. Perhaps that fact, in and of itself, can be enough to bring about seasonal depression.
Realizing the now and not yet is a lived tension can be helpful in these short days. But more importantly to me during this season is the realization that just as much as my anxieties and fears aren't abstract, the solution to them isn't either.
The good news of the incarnation is that God doesn't work in the probable. He responds to both our abstractions of fear as well as our real-life sufferings with a new reality. A reality given through his particular flesh and blood. Flesh and blood that was born in a manger, was crucified and resurrected and has been promised to us as the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:26-29).
We aren't "theoretically" or "potentially" saved, and one way I would argue we can be certain of this is in the very real experience of partaking in the Lord's Supper. There is nothing abstract about the Sacraments - they are the embodiment of the Incarnate Christ given to us directly. We don't place our hope in a God who floats overhead without any word about how or when, or even if, he may one day join us. Instead, we have a living, breathing God who took on the form of his creation, took on our sin, and furthermore, gives us his body and blood so that when we find ourselves unsorted by the mess of life, we have a place to return to over and over again.
"The risen Lord Jesus interacts with us bodily in Holy Communion...Like a mother with a baby in her womb, Jesus nourishes us with his body and blood. Or, to change the picture, Jesus transfuses his lifeblood from his body into ours," says John Kleinig in his book Wonderfully Made (82).
Just as a mother and child remain, in effect, one body until birth. Christ’s transfusion to us unites us completely with him; making us one body both with him as well as with all his saints. This transfusion doesn't happen without an incarnate God, and it also doesn't happen without the Lord's Supper where Jesus has promised not only that we are to be united with him, but the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28), access to God's presence (Heb. 10:19), eternal life (John 6), and sanctification (Heb. 13:12). It's his words, combined with bread and wine, that give us these gifts through his body and blood.
Such gifts aren't made real by how well you contemplate Christ's sacrifice for you. They are not made real by how quiet you remain at the table, how well you pray, nor how hard you think and remember. Instead, they are made real because of Christ's promises which were fulfilled in his death and resurrection and in which we now await with hope in his return. The reality of the Sacraments cannot be mustered up because it is all a gift.
Without the incarnation, there are no gifts for us in the now, and therefore, there is also no hope in the tension of the now and not yet. No real hope anyway, for all we can rely on is a theoretical hope in a God without sure promises. In my opinion, such hope isn’t worth much especially in light of the overwhelming realities of our daily lives – those that pit themselves against the hope we have in Christ and therefore remain reliant on our own abilities and efforts.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the tensions of this season - remember that Christ himself instituted the particularity of the Sacraments for just a time as this in order to keep us grounded in the truth and reality that overcomes any reality of pain and brokenness, of sin and death. Even as we await his return, we are comforted by the fact that we are already united with him, we have been given his holiness – a complete transfusion of blood which brings us from death into new life.