The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth
by William H. Willimon
Christmas is a crazy, cluttered and cramped season for most of us. Looking back at Advent, we may need to admit that the time we had hoped to spend in quiet meditation on the meaning of Christ’s birth somehow morphed into endless errands and extra family duties. As a result, our well planned spiritual disciplines seemed to dissolve before our very eyes. If this describes your recent Advent season, take heart and take up this book: Incarnation — The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth (2013 Abingdon Press).
A wonderfully reassuring book about God’s relentless love for us, Incarnation is a powerful exploration of the subject of Jesus’ entry into the disheveled world of humankind, and of the mystery of Immanuel, “God with us,” which is at the heart of Christmas. Written by William H. Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School of Duke University, Willimon has packed an amazing amount of solid, insightful information about the Doctrine of the Incarnation into his short book.
Has Willimon made the topic of the Incarnation simple? No. Because, as Willimon says, ” [Jesus] defies simplistic, effortless, undemanding explications. To be sure, Jesus often communicated his truth in simple, homely, direct ways, but his truth was anything but apparent and undemanding in the living…The Gospels are full of folks who confidently knew what was what–until they met Jesus. Jesus provoked an intellectual crisis in just about everybody. Their response was not, ‘Wow, I’ve just seen the Son of God,’ but rather, ‘Who is this?’ “
And yet, Incarnation – The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth is a thoroughly enjoyable book, written in conversational language, and full of encouragement. In the early pages of the book Willimon provides this definition: “Incarnation (from the Latin word for ‘in the flesh’) is the set of ideas by which Christians believe that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. The Incarnation is the grand crescendo of all reflection upon the mystery that Christ is the full revelation of God–not only one who talks about God but the one who speaks for and acts as God, one who is God.”
Having established this as the meaning of Incarnation, Willimon skillfully presents brief explanations of arguments in opposition to his definition from philosophers and theologians such as Hegel and Marcus Borg, and he includes short statements in support of his definition from the likes of Augustine, Martin Luther, Barth, Kierkegaard, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and N.T. Wright. None of these luminaries is quoted at length, but Willimon has chosen succinct and worthwhile remarks that help to show the great amount of thought, struggle and consideration that has gone into determining what is meant by the Incarnation. He also attempts to explain why the idea of the Incarnation is difficult to put into words:
“If, simplistically, we say that Christ is ‘only human,’ then he has no more to tell us about God than the average, well-meaning, inspired spiritual teacher. However, if Christ is only God, then he has little relevance to this frail, finite, fragile thing called human life. Once God Almighty so unreservedly joined humanity in Jesus Christ, we were forced into complex conjunctive thinking–Jesus is both human and divine…Christian theology is an ages-long attempt to keep the faith as complicated and conjunctive as it must be in order to do justice to the God who has met us in Jesus Christ.”
It seems to be conjunctive thinking, the both/and, that surprises and confuses us about Jesus. The faithful have been praying, longing and waiting for God to show up, and when he does he isn’t what we were expecting at all. The Jews were looking for a strong military ruler who would restore David’s kingdom, and what they got in the Incarnation was a poor itinerant rabbi. This is good news? Yes, this is The Good News, says Willimon.
“The Word (logos) became flesh” is a stunning declaration of God’s availability… What matters most is that God has become matter. Meaning has become material… The world was created for this stunning moment so that God could tabernacle among us in Jesus Christ.” Jesus, The Incarnation, the fullness of God, is available to us, not because we could ascend to him but because he descended to our human state.
Willimon includes several stories to illustrate various ideas about the tension of the human/divine truth of the Incarnation. This is one from G.K. Chesterton:
“Chesterton said that in our thought about the Incarnation, ‘Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them both furious.’ I’m glad that, in thinking about Christ, the church in its wisdom did not falsely harmonize or oversimplify this conjunctive truth but allowed to stand the ‘furious opposites’ combined so wonderfully in Christ.”
Throughout the remaining pages of Incarnation, Willimon shows us the fullness of the Good News we have in Jesus. He recounts that we receive the help for which we pray because Jesus is not simply with us, he is also for us, so much so that he gave his life for our sakes. This is the overarching connection that exists between Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. Jesus’ love for us and his desire to save us in our helpless condition led to his crucifixion, and his astonishing resurrection.
Willimon writes, “While we cannot ascend to God… it is true that God descends to us, and when that happens, we indeed experience the truth of Incarnation. We bump against a God who is not merely a projection of our spiritual yearnings. Though the experience of millions confirms the Gospel’s testimony of God With Us, the Gospels are more than testimony to inner human experience. In the rhythm of the church’s worship we experience Incarnation.”
And here is some surprising consolation for those of us who might not have completed their Advent devotions. Willimon tells us:
“Odd that we Christians sometimes present Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, as something strange and mystical. Or else we self-righteously criticize everybody else for making Yuletide so ‘materialistic.’ Christmas should be an annual reminder to a sometimes overly spiritualized church that Christianity is materialistic. God not only created matter, God became material.”
Enjoy a material Christmastide treat – buy yourself, and a friend, a copy of Incarnation – The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth by William H. Willimon. It is an excellent book and one that would be great for in depth conversations with a friend or a group.
NB: I first saw this book listed at heartsandmindsbooks.com. Byron and Beth Borger (marvelous people!) operate the site which is a great place to look for books, and you can order the books you want from them, as well.
Copyright ©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday 1959) 92.