I still remember my very first day of seminary at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. For some reason, my first class was in June right after I’d graduated from Texas A&M in May. I was 22 years old. I guess I was just trying to get started taking classes without really knowing what I was doing. My first course was an upper-level theology course. I’m sure there was an easier way to begin but I didn’t begin that way.
Everyone in the class was older than me. They knew the seminary game. They knew that much of seminary was talking out loud, challenging each other with big hard questions. I was not yet aware that much of seminary was showing off to each other in this big word, big idea way. In that very first session, words were used like eschatological, ethos, Christology, ecclesiology and exegesis.
I sat there wide-eyed and pale. Clearly, I’d made a huge wrong decision in choosing seminary. I had always been shy and quiet. I never talked to professors or raised my hand to talk out loud in class. At the end of this class, though, I made a beeline to Dr. Routt, the theology professor. He was a small man with gray hair, round glasses and a gentle bright smile. I told him with my voice trembling, “I shouldn’t be here. I have no idea what you all are talking about.”
His blue eyes twinkled and he said, “Yes, you do. You’ve experienced all the things we are talking about, you just haven’t learned the language yet.” Fast forward three years and this same professor, prayed the prayer of ordination as I knelt and hands were laid on my head and I became an ordained pastor.
Incarnation is one of those seminary words I had to learn. I don’t think that word is even in the Bible. Instead our Bible describes it like this: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….John 1:14 or this: for to us a child is born, to us a son is given….Isaiah 9:6 or this: and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient…. Phillipians 2:8.
Incarnation, to me, means that God became human in order to reach us, speak to us and show us things we could not see otherwise. The fact that God chose to come to us as a baby born in a stable to a very poor young couple is just stunning and pretty much tells us all we need to know about our surprising God who loves to turn what is expected upside down. People had been waiting, prophesying and talking about this Messiah for generations. They were waiting on a king. God opted instead, for a baby.
We humans learn best in particular, specific, concrete ways. We first learn love and nurture from our real life, flawed parents. We learn how to live in this world by engaging with real people: siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, pastors and others.
God still reaches us and speaks to us in ways we can see and touch and understand. We are touched and moved by nature. We understand that God is Light, Jesus is Light and we are to be Light because we’ve experienced real light.
My professor was right, I had experienced incarnation, not in seminary, but way back when I was six years old at a live manger scene at our church. I share this story every year at this time. My mom and my dad were Mary and Joseph, they borrowed my Madame Alexander baby doll Victoria to play Jesus. I was allowed to attend the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service for the first time that year. I sat with relatives and still remember my head swimming because it was so late for me. (It still is too late for me, by the way.) Everything seemed like a dream that night.
As we walked from the sanctuary into the cold, I was also allowed to hold a burning candle with a paper disk on it to keep my hand from getting burned. When I saw my parents and my beloved baby there, in that makeshift stable, I got it. I got it right down to my toes.
God came to us, to us, to real human people like my mom and dad and me. I stood there shivering as long as I could. My whole body reacted to this scene, this knowing. Incarnation. God in human form. God with us, God for us, God in us.
My baby doll made it real for me that night. Come to think of it, six other babies since then have enhanced that reality and have changed me, blessed me and healed me with this strong awareness of God in us.
God is so good. My professor was right, I knew incarnation way before I learned the big word. I knew as a child that God is the Word made flesh in Jesus and that the very same God lived in me too.
A baby, God chose to come to us as a baby. Incarnation is, to this day, one of the very best big words I know.
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, wife, mother of three, breast cancer survivor and Mosa to Keller, Pace and River. To read more blogs and to see upcoming speaking events go to http://www.drcindyryanblog.com. You can also sign up there for Dr. Ryan’s monthly Inner Circle emails. Sign up today to receive the January 1, 2022 email on all things new.