“All manmade religion stands in opposition to the gospel. It is an ascent toward the eternal, perfect God. Up, up – that is its call. God is high above, we are down below; and now we shall soar by means of our moral, spiritual, and religious endeavors out of the earthly, human depths into the divine heights.” —Emil Brunner
“Divine heights” – yes, that’s where most of us want to be: that sphere of bliss where all is well and pure and good and holy, where all that burdens and weighs us down is lifted. Isn’t this what religion and spirituality are all about: finding God and our eternal destiny above and beyond the prison of fleeting time and suffering? Don’t we all long to be grasped by the infinite, the absolute, the perfect – to gaze upon the true, the good, the beautiful, unhindered in peace and glory?
We may indeed ache for paradise. But the gospel, the good news in Christ, is that God lives somewhere else. The true and living God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, dwells and reigns in the dark depths of our existence, here and now.
The greatness of God’s majesty is not in the realm of the eternal. God is Immanuel, “God with us,” and even more: he is one of us! The Word became flesh, and in the flesh God’s glory is revealed (John 1:14). Such glory, in its incomprehensible smallness, is too much for us to handle. As the apostle John writes, his own neither recognized nor received him.
No wonder we so readily exchange the mystery of incarnation for Christmas. We pine for the familiar rituals of Yuletide merriment and for its visions of confected magic, despite knowing deep down that these are based on a fiction. We want to be comforted and cheered, not scandalized like Joseph or shocked like Mary, the shepherds, and Herod. We don’t want to feel, as Bonhoeffer put it, “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.”
When we sidestep the incarnation, we risk smothering our sense of who God is. We miss, in the words of J. B. Phillips, “the awe-inspiring humility of God” – “the awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done.”
God’s humility is not only frightening; it is also offensive.
And what has God done? “He made himself nothing,” Paul says (Phil. 2:7 NIV). God has dived all the way down into his fallen creation to redeem it, exploding our preconceived notions of the divine. He descended into our darkness, not to shine a glint of light here and there, but to wholly illumine and transform our fleshly existence. He takes on our sinful flesh to overcome it (Heb. 2:14–18).
This is frightening. The One in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17) made himself vulnerable and threw himself into the arms of his wayward creation in order to save it. He came to show us that what we desire and need most is not carefree, self-sufficient lives, but rather a way of humble love.
The day my father pulled me aside into his den and told me that my fifteen-year-old sister had left home to live somewhere else – that was the day I was awakened to my father’s love. Up to that point, Dad had been bigger than life. He had everything in control, and he had all the answers. But as he struggled to tell me why my younger sister had left, how she had shattered every trust, his eyes filled with tears of helplessness. At that moment, for the first time, Dad entered my world – my confusing, bewildering, charged world of adolescence. And for the very first time I knew my father’s love, not just for me, but for all of us in the family. He and I – we were now the same! I saw then, as I hadn’t seen before, the man in him. And I was changed. In confiding his pain to me I too had become a man, through being overwhelmed by love.
Our world does not appreciate vulnerability. Neediness is rejected as incompetence, kindness is dismissed as unprofitable. We want a God who is almighty and invincible, a God who destroys evil in a flash and makes everything all right with a wave of his hand. We want a God who wakes us from our nightmares and transports us into a trouble-free world.
And so God’s humility is not only frightening; it is also offensive. We prefer the kind of God we can soar up to and glory in. We don’t want to admit that our efforts to reach him are not only futile, but unworthy. God’s descent means we cannot come up to him; it is he who comes down to us! He alone bridges the gulf between what is and what ought to be, and shows us this not in a display of power, but by the embarrassing journey of climbing down.
We not only resist God’s beggarly ways, but also prefer to ignore them in our everyday lives. The wisdom of our world extols success, financial independence, and status. The good life, we are told, is about having it all together, moving up, being in first place, being head and shoulders above the pack. To know God, however, means the very opposite. We are to have “the mind of Christ” (Phil. 2:5), which means being willing to move down with him.
Divine depths. Downward. In this lies our hope.
To know the incarnate God means seeing ourselves for who we really are: trapped in sin and encased in the lonely castles built of our own pride. It means confessing our own complicity in the hells we find ourselves in and have made on earth. And more than this, it means spending ourselves on behalf of the poor, those who exist on the margins of society and at the end of their rope. It means forgoing the security of our lives, and entering into the pain of those who despair. “‘Is this not what it means to know me,’ declares the Lord, ‘to defend the cause of the poor and the needy?’” (Jer. 22:16).
The incarnation, from the manger to the cross, is the very opposite of our wishes. It defies our logic and exposes our self-righteousness and bankruptcy. It reveals how obsessed we are with ourselves. We know in our bones that our rightful end is hell, banishment from the Garden. But the good news is that this is precisely where God meets us. God dwells in the godforsaken places of our lives. His aim is to vanquish every hell, not by external force of will but from the inside out, through love.
Divine depths. Downward. In this lies our hope. “When God’s time comes,” says Christoph Blumhardt, “great changes take place. Not only are the shepherds of this world startled, but the whole world – then we are led into something new.”
Wherever and whoever we are, no matter what the hell we find ourselves in, Christ descends to us, and calls us to descend with him. On this downward way, we will discover not just the depth of God’s love, but also – in the same moment – its divine height.