Happy New Year! As has become a yearly tradition, I led an Advent retreat day at St. Philip’s last month. The theme was Incarnation—the fancy word for God in Christ becoming flesh in Jesus. As we continue living into the season of Christmastide, I thought I would share an excerpt from the retreat talk I entitled “Unpacking Gabriel’s Message.” It speaks to what Mary (and Elizabeth and Zechariah and others) would have understood about the angel Gabriel’s explanation for why Jesus took on flesh (you can read Gabriel’s message here).
“Jesus will be great.” Jesus will start from a place of poverty and insignificance, but he will become much more.
God will give Jesus “the throne of his ancestor David.” This was about restoring the once-mighty kingdom of Israel to its former glory. People in Mary and Joseph’s time looked back on King David as the epitome of Israel—sort of like how many people in the USA look back on George Washington. David established Israel on Mount Zion and reigned as the first king of a united Israel. George Washington was the first US president, leading a collection of united states.
There are a lot of Americans today who believe that the United States has fallen far from that initial ideal under Washington. In much the same way, many in first-century Galilee felt that Israel had fallen far from the initial ideal under David. So, for God to be willing to become human, to take on flesh and claim that ancestral ideal of King David—that was huge for Mary, and Joseph, and so many Israelites who were taxed and oppressed by Rome.
Gabriel also stated that Jesus would reign over “the house of Jacob” forever. The House of Jacob is a cultural memory that goes back even further than King David. It goes back to the beginnings of the Jewish people, before they ended up as slaves in Egypt. Jacob was the father of twelve sons, whose children became the twelve tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. All these names would have been ingrained in the hearts of Mary and Joseph—similar, perhaps, to the thirteen original colonies that became the first United States of America. Yet, these names would have meant even more, because they were the names of people, not places. And here God is, becoming a person. God is becoming incarnate, in Jesus, through Mary.
Gabriel concludes his message by stating that Jesus’ reign would have no end. From the very beginning, Mary is given a mystery. God will become human, yet will remain God, somehow, in some way—because Jesus will remain with his people forever.
We understand this, probably better than Mary could have grasped it at the time, because the first words of the Gospel of John explain to us the wonder of incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Christ was God. God was one.
“All things came into being through him.” Christ in God brought about the initial incarnation: God spoke, and creation unfolded. In that sense, incarnation is, in fact, something intrinsic, inherent, in each of us as well.
Ponder that fact: You and I are made in the image and likeness of God! Now please ponder what that means for how you live your life, in Christmastide and beyond.