Emmanuel, God with Us (Advent Part 2)
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
In the first chapter of his gospel, Matthew links the birth of Jesus to a prophecy first given in Isaiah 7:14:
“Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Last week we briefly touched on a variety of questions surrounding Jesus’ divinity and humanity. This verse touches on what all of those questions had in common, a question that is especially relevant during the Christmas season: how exactly is God with us? As a refresher, the main problem facing Christians was figuring out how the all-powerful God could be incarnate in a finite human being. The idea that God could be with us in the form of a human person seemed so outrageous and contradictory that Christians were debating it even 500 years after Jesus’ ministry. Over the centuries many theologians tried to figure out how to make sense of this mystery. Apollinaris, for example, claimed that Jesus must be some sort of God-human hybrid, neither fully human nor divine but somehow a mixture of the two that created a brand new nature or essence (Would this new being be called a “Hod” or a “Guman”?). Others, like Nestorius, claimed that Jesus was really two persons, as if God and the human being were cohabitating in a body. Think of God and a human living as roommates in the same body and you’re not too far off from his position. As clever as these formulations were, they were ultimately unsatisfactory.
Now at this point I could go on for seemingly forever about the Council of Chalcedon and the solution that the Church ultimately did arrive at (spoiler alert: they said that Jesus has 2 complete, unmixed natures in 1 person). But that would not make for a good devotional. Firstly, no one would read it. I mean, do you really want to read about 2 ousias in 1 hypostasis? Secondly, abstract theologizing without a practical impact misses the point entirely. The more interesting and relevant question is this: why did the Church commit to such a confusing formula rather than accept the seemingly more understandable solutions offered by people like Nestorius?
The Church actually had two very practical reasons for affirming the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus. The first reason is simple: we worship Jesus! Christians have experiences of encountering Jesus as savior that leads them to worship him. And while that seems obvious, it has a very important implication. To worship Jesus means that we believe him to be God because God is the only One worthy of worship. And there’s no qualification or asterisk attached to that. Jesus is fully God. So that explains the conviction of his full Godhood, but what about his full humanity? The Church’s commitment to that doctrine has to do with the impact of the gospel. Specifically, what is actually good news to us? Is it good news that God’s incarnation was merely an illusion or a half-measure? Or is it good news to us that God could not fully be in solidarity with us? The Church was convicted that the good news rests in the reality that God truly and completely understands what it means to be human because God lived as one.
As Hebrews 4:15 says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” The Church was convicted by the reality that God truly committed to living among us, to opening Godself up to full vulnerability and intimacy with humanity. And the logic of salvation that arises from this conviction is a truly beautiful one: by fully becoming human, God redeems the entirety of human nature itself. Gregory of Nazianzus phrased it this way: “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” Just as Jesus’ touched healed those he came into contact with, his full unity with human nature cleanses and redeems the fullness of our humanity. There is nothing outside the scope of God’s redemptive will for us because God experienced the full scope of humanity. And so the Church committed to that mystery that arose out of their encounter with and experience of God. Jesus is somehow, someway fully God and fully human, and we affirm this because we have experienced God as one who completely saves and completely understands us. And in this season of advent we are invited to remember, celebrate, and be transformed by that wonderful truth.
* Thumbnail: Theotokos by Anna Schumann (2022)