God loves stuff. Things. Matter. We can tell that God loves stuff because he made so much of it. From the dust of the Horsehead Nebula to the sand of a Pacific beach to the granite of the Rocky Mountains, God made it all, and, according to its own proper nature, loves it all. He loves it all so much that he is, even at this moment, sustaining it in existence by the act of his will. And he loves stuff so much that he gave some of it life: from the amoebae to the oak trees to the duck-billed platypuses, he shared with these things the living aspect of his own nature.
But it wasn’t enough for God to make stuff, and even to give it life. At the pinnacle of his creative act, he made a living, material creature, to which he imparted a share in his own divine nature. This living, material creature, called man, was made “in his image and likeness,” being a unique hybrid of the material and spiritual. In man a spiritual soul is united to a material body in such a way that the soul animates the body, and the body expresses the life of the soul. In this way the material creation, in mankind, finds its perfection in a union with the spiritual.
Because we are thoroughly accustomed to being human, we might lose sight of how amazing and wonderful the human creature is. But the scriptures bear witness to the wonder of the human creature. In Psalm 8, the psalmist proclaims “thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.” In Psalm 139, he pronounces man “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wonderfully made, in God’s own image and likeness, and destined for eternal fellowship with God.
At least that was the way it was supposed to be. Unfortunately, man misused his gifts and freedom, and fell. In the fall of man, all of material creation fell as well. And so there entered into the world all of the hardship, strife, pain, and misery which has been our unhappy lot ever since.
But God did not, would not, leave his creation in such a sorry state – remember that God loves all of this stuff. He loved it into being, and lovingly sustains it in being. So God devised a plan to restore man, and all of creation with him. God would restore man, and restore his share in the divine life, by uniting himself to man, by becoming man.
This brings us to the heart of the matter for our celebration of Christmas: the Incarnation. God did not merely stoop down and lift us up out of our morass of sin and death. He chose to become one of us, and bear our burden of sin and death. The Incarnation is God’s ultimate act of compassion; saving his creation by suffering with it.
The angel Gabriel told Mary that the child to be born of her would be “Emmanuel,” that is, “God-is-with-us.” But the reality is even more profound, for the Christ child is in fact “God-is-one-of-us.” The infant of Bethlehem is God, come among us in the same stuff of which we are made. The en-fleshment of God is the linchpin of God’s saving act. That is what led Tertullian, in the early third century, to proclaim “caro cardo salutis,” that is, “the flesh is the hinge of salvation.”
The Church, from the apostles onward, has insisted upon the fleshiness of Christ, of the literal reality of the incarnation. She insisted upon it against the Docetists, who taught that Christ was only a sort of apparition, an illusion of humanity. She insisted upon it against the Apollinarians, who held that Jesus had a human body but not a human mind. And she will insist upon it against whatever clever theory someone may come up with today, such as Jesus as a space alien. No, Jesus is truly God become one of us, God enfleshed, so that through the flesh divinity might redeem all of materiality.
This insistence of the Church is underscored in the liturgy. Every Sunday, in the creed we are invited to bow at the words “…and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” And in our great celebrations of the Incarnation, the Annunciation (March 25) and Christmas, we are invited to pause at these words, to genuflect, and reflect for a moment on the great condescension of God to take on our flesh and become one of us.
St. John tells us in his gospel that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” St. Paul tells us that Christ is “a man like us, in all things but sin.” Today in the words of the Catechism, we celebrate the saving work of God who is “creator of the flesh; the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh.” God so loved his creation that he became part of it, to restore to life the stuff which he made.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Adoration of the Shepherds” was painted by Rubens in 1608.