On my shelves here at the church are a pair of matching books by the late Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance, whose work I quoted in another blog post a week ago. The books are called Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ and Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ: matching books for two areas of theology that should never be separated.
But we do sometimes separate what we believe about the Word becoming one of us, the Son of God leaving the glories of heaven to be born as Jesus of Nazareth (the Incarnation), from what we believe about his death thirty-three years later on a Roman cross, giving up his life for our sins (the Atonement). Sometimes our reflection on the incarnation is only a sentimental calling to mind of the image of a sweet and usually tearless (if “Away in a Manger” has it right!) baby in unfortunate surroundings. And sometimes our reflections on the cross picture Jesus as something like a superhero from another world coming in to quickly resolve our problems.
The two belong together. The incarnation and the atonement are a matching pair. The One who paid the price for our sins and overcame the power of sin, death, and the devil in his crucifixion is the One who has shared human life from conception to the grave. He isn’t an outsider to our problems in this world, even if he is the only One who, as our Creator, is truly above and outside of our whole life. The incarnation guarantees that the One whose “work” on the cross and in the resurrection is so effective is the One who knows us inside out. He knows our joys—the laughter and warmth of a loving and caring community—as well as our sorrows—the sudden death of a close friend after a short illness, the betrayal of people who were once the closest friends. The ancient fathers of the church had a saying that only what was “assumed” by Jesus could be healed. The one who healed us in his atonement first assumed our whole sin-bruised human life in his incarnation. For this reason, in his Christmas hymn "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," Charles Wesley could rejoice, "God and sinners reconciled!"
Christmas, as the celebration of the incarnation, is a time when we must look to the whole human life that began in the womb of young Mary and first settled down in a manger in Bethlehem. Here the eternal purposes of God met our troubled condition. Here began the life that would experience everything you and I do. And here in Bethlehem the road that would lead to the cross, and beyond the cross to the resurrection and the glorious life of the risen and reigning Lord, stretched out ahead of the newborn Jesus.