What occasioned Christ’s descent?
Christmas is God’s reminder that we could never, ever save ourselves. He had to come save us.
I’ve published multiple reflections on Christ’s Incarnation recently, which were influenced both by what I was reading at the time and by the holiday season in which we now find ourselves. It’s no secret that Christmastide contains, perhaps, some of the most fertile ground for theological reflection, with the “Word become flesh” serving as a more than suitable “reason for the season.” The carols and sermons that fill our minds and hearts with Christ’s triumphant albeit lowly birth are cherished not only because of their warm words and arrangements, but, more so, because they speak to that which is the crux of our entire faith. The appearance of the Son of God in the likeness of men is an occasion so unforeseen and so unprecedented (Phil. 2:7). We are right to wonder at it — and, to be sure, there will never be enough hymns or meditations composed exploring its depth of meaning.
But what brought about this Incarnation of God? What occasioned Christ’s descent to our human frame? St. Athanasius, in his pivotal treatise, On the Incarnation, attests that it was humanity’s “own cause” that occasioned “his descent and that our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings, so that the Lord both came to us and appeared among human beings. For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”1 That’s a marvelous thought, indeed: that he who is higher than the heavens considered our lowly, wretched estate and was so moved by love that he intruded upon our world in order to redeem it. Such is what St. Paul affirms when he writes in his letter to the churches in Galatia, that “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). The Incarnation, then, is the chief expression of God’s glorious redemption. It’s the divine reminder that there’s only One who can save us from ourselves.
Renowned orator G. Campbell Morgan puts it like this:
He Who came, the first-born of creation, the goal to which the whole creation moved until He came, came not by the movement of creation toward Him, but by a new order of God, a new act of God, a new overruling of God . . . The first-born came, not by processes of creation, which God originated and governed, but by a new touch and new intrusion, by a new activity of God, In that is evidence of the redeeming purpose of God in His coming. Man cannot redeem his own kind. Man is of the creation entirely, and, while causing, also shares its failure. God only can redeem; He is beyond the creation. The creation is of Him, but in Him is no failure. He Who faileth never, bends to that which fails and touches it anew with power, and enters into it by His own mysterious self-emptying. That is the deeper truth concerning the birth of Jesus . . .
The ultimate crown on the brow of God is that which crowns the Living One Who stooped to die to redeem men. He came into the condition of humanity resulting from sin, lived in the midst of it, passed down into death itself. We can never now celebrate Christmas without realizing the Cross in the midst of it all.2
Every year, as we celebrate Christmas, we enter a time of holy remembrance, in which we stare into the face of the Christ child, who alone is our Savior (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31, 47). Indeed, that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown — it’s God’s reminder that we could never, ever save ourselves. He had to come save us.
Merry Christmas, friends.
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated and edited by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2011), 53.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1-10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954), 8:345–46.