The image that most of us conjure when we think of God becoming human is a newborn lying in a manger with Mary and Joseph smiling from ear to ear. The scene evokes warm feelings of nostalgia and motherhood and wonder. Most people today don’t give much thought about the mechanics or the theology behind this. They would much rather break out in a solemn chorus of “Silent Night.”
But the early Christians had LOTS of questions about this. For starters, how did God become a human child, also known as the incarnation? Luke enigmatically explains that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, impregnating her. But that doesn’t offer much. Was she just a vessel? If so, then did Jesus just LOOK human and he was really 100% God. This will become a popular notion among Gnostic Christians.
The main branch of Christianity rejected this and insisted that Jesus was indeed human as well as God. But this prompted a plethora of other questions. For example, if he was human, then where did his humanity come from. Mary? If so, then did her humanity contain impurities, because, well, we can’t have that, since God must be pure, even if he is a god-man. So did this mean that Mary was sinless? An imaginative book called the Infancy Gospel of James will offer stories to answer this question.
Understand, this is just the beginning. There were some practical questions as well. For example, what was it like to be the mother of the Son of God? If Jesus was late for dinner, did you scold him?
Another imaginative writer tried to offer some answers in a text entitled, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. You can find English translations of this online where you while find fantastic stores of the boy Jesus creating birds our of clay and then clapping his hands to make them come alive, and more ominous stories of Jesus zapping people dead, including someone who just bumped into Jesus as he was walking down the street.
Now, obviously this work is pseudepigraphal and is not to be taken seriously. And yet, it demonstrates that the early Christians obviously had many thoughtful questions about the details of God becoming human, and maybe we should be a little curious as well.
One early church father who pondered this mystery was named Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. In one of his books he wrote this about the incarnation and said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is” (Against Heresies, Book 5, Preface).
It’s a beautiful idea echoed by many others that reflected on whether the act of God becoming a human child had repercussions beyond just the holy family. For Irenaeus, the answer was an emphatic, “Yes!” He felt that the miracle was so profound that it affected the very nature of humanity itself.
To put another way, when God became human in the form of Jesus, the template for humanity was reset. Now, rather than having the example of Adam and Eve as the role model of humanity, which has its problems, we now have Jesus. Who, in the act of the incarnation, not only demonstrated to us what real humanity looks like in that it is noble and loving and graceful, he completely restored the image and likeness of God in us.
C.S. Lewis explains, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses. To remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” (The Weight of Glory).
In a world that seems to be increasingly angry and hostile, we would do well to remember these words. For as Mary and Joseph gazed at the baby Jesus, they were also gazing at a face that represented the potential of every human being you have ever met.
You have never met a mere mortal.