Part of the answer comes from one of the Bible readings that has doubtless featured in many carol services around the world – the opening verses of the opening chapter of the fourth gospel.
John does not begin his story of Jesus with details of shepherds and wise men and mangers and angels: he begins in the beginning. In fact, he starts out by claiming that when the beginning began Jesus (whom he describes as the Word) was already there. He was with God, says John, and he was God.
The mystery that lies at the heart of the Christmas story is summed up in this phrase from John:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We call this the incarnation. God took on human flesh. If this had never happened – if Jesus had never been born – I think these three things would be true.
- God would be less personal. The Bible claims that God is knowable through creation. Everything came into existence through his spoken command (his Word) and the heavens declare the glory of God. In the Old Testament God speaks, not only through the display of his majesty, power and wisdom in creation, but as he calls an Abraham or speaks through the message of an Isaiah. But when Jesus was born, God became one of us. As personal as you or me. No mere life force or energy, but God with skin on, God who touches lepers, who calms storms, who brings forgiveness.
- God would be less approachable. The Bible is the story of how God comes near. From the garden, to a tent in the desert, to a temple: at the end of Revelation, ‘God himself will be with them as their God.’ When Jesus came, God came near and dwelt (lived in a tabernacle) among us. He did not come in a bubble, isolated from human experience. His feet gathered the dust of Palestine, he shed tears, he experienced rejection and pain. Which means, as Hebrews puts it, that we have a Saviour who is touched by the feeling of our weakness. He knows, not simply because of omnipotence, but because of experience.
- God would be less knowable. Jesus came to make God known. He translated him into human. People saw and heard God in their language. Many, sadly, did not recognise him and in fact preferred to turn away from him. But all who received him, who believed in his name, could become children of God.
Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.