At Christmas time, Christians around the world celebrate the Incarnation - when the Son of God became man. The promised Messiah came to earth, humbling himself to take on human nature while also remaining fully divine. He was born in an unexpected way - laid in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem, one of the numerous Old Testament prophecies Jesus Christ fulfilled in his life.
In other words, Christmas reminds us that the Son of God became embodied. Before we look at why this is significant to our own embodied reality, we need to solidify why the Incarnation was necessary at all. (Read my "Embodiment" post if you want to know more about our embodied reality.)
Sinful humanity, cut off from their Creator yet created for a relationship with him, required an intermediary who could reconcile the irreconcilable parties. God had to become flesh in order to meet his own righteous requirements. As John Stott puts it, the cross is about “God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.” Jesus Christ, the God-man, was the only form of satisfaction by substitution, so “the incarnation is imperative to the atonement.” To be man’s substitute, he becomes like man. Fully God and fully man, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man. And for him to take the form of man mandated material tangibility – a body.
Hebrews 2:14-15, 17 tells us more:
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
So to save men and women from Satan, sin, and death Christ had to become human.
15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Apart from Christ, humanity is hopelessly enslaved to sin and faces eternal death for sin.
17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
To bear God’s wrath against sin, the Son of God became a man so that he could offer atonement to God on behalf of sinful men and women.
Christ’s embodiment matters for our embodiment.
Historically, Christian consideration of the body hasn’t always been good or even biblically accurate. (Read my "Body and Soul" post for more.) The body has been disparaged, viewed as a source of evil, or a mere shell cast off at death. But when we learn the Son of God willingly took on the form of man, becoming embodied, we must conclude that in doing so, he affirmed bodily existence. I believe this requires Christians to acknowledge their own bodily existence and inspires a transforming perspective on their own embodied life.
Christ's body and atonement
The reality of his embodied existence is crucial to his work of atonement. Without a real flesh and blood death, Christ couldn't provide a once for all sacrifice. In fact, throughout church history, several ideas regarding atonement and salvation negated his physical body and thus, were deemed heretical. John Stott comments,"At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology. The person and work of Christ belong together."
For example, Gnostics believed anything material was evil. So they downplayed Christ’s physical existence, holding that Christ only appeared to be human. Other heresies, like Docetism, Arianism, Apollonarianism, and Nestorianism varied slightly in their beliefs but all disregarded Christ’s embodiment, nullifying his atonement. Church fathers who combated these heresies - like Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Tertullian - all positively assessed the body. According to Nancy Pearcy, "Today secular culture is falling back into a dualism that denigrates the material realm, just as ancient paganism did. As in the early church, it is the orthodox Christians who have a basis for defending a high view of the human body."
Christ's body and ministry
Throughout his life on earth, Christ’s tangibility was an important facet of his ministry. Christ used his body to obey God and serve others so that he could identify with the plight of men. Jesus performed many miracles simply by speaking, but others were accomplished through physical touch where Christ intentionally used his body to impart healing to other bodies. Certainly, his word alone could've invoked the same ends; even a miraculous thought would be sufficient. But occasionally, for whatever reason, he chose to feature his body as the conduit of divine power.
Consider the following from Scripture: In Mark 1, Jesus heals Peter’s mother by taking her hand and helping her up out of bed with no words spoken. He also touches a leper, commanding him to be clean. Matthew 9 reports a centurion begging Christ to touch his dead daughter so that she will come back to life. Jesus goes, grasps her hand, and she gets up. Later, Jesus heals a blind man by touch in that same chapter. Mark 7 shows Jesus healing by putting his fingers in a deaf and mute man’s ears, spitting, then touching his tongue. In Mark 8, he restores sight to a blind man by putting his hands on the man’s eyes. John 9 reveals another instance of Jesus healing a blind man with spit applied to his eyes. In Luke 13, Jesus heals a crippled woman by declaring her free from infirmity then touching her. Matthew 20 shows Jesus again healing two blind men by touching their eyes. In Luke 22, when Peter cut the soldier’s ear off in defense of Christ, he restores it by touching his ear.
Christ's body and obedience
In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul writes that Adam’s act of disobedience had to be undone by an act of obedience for righteousness to be applied to sinners. Only through an embodied life could Christ accomplish his role as second Adam. The Son of God needed a body to live out a perfectly sinless life, completely obedient to his Father's commands, so that he could redeem us from the curse of the law.
Even more, believers, called to emulate Christ’s obedient life, should find his physical existence the consummate example of perfect, embodied submission to the Father. Only then, following his pattern, do believers take up their own crosses and follow him through their physical existence. His embodied obedience sets an exemplary path of embodied Christian living for his followers. For instance, how else can the surrendered believer present his or her life as a living sacrifice if not through the body? (Rom 12:1) The bible commands embodied obedience - to bridle the tongue, present members to God as instruments of righteousness, set the mind on things above, and use one's feet to spread the gospel, among others. The physical, bodily involvement underlying these commands - understood in light of Christ's embodied obedience - impels significant consideration of our own embodiment. We are left to ask ourselves, am I glorifying God in, by, through, and with my body?
So, at Christmas, when we sing of Christ's birth and put the manger at the center of our nativity scenes, be sure to connect Christ’s assumption of a human nature to the body.
The Incarnation beckons us to value our bodies.
(For insight on valuing the body, read my "Body Stewardship" posts.)