So both of the Christmas names—Jesus and Immanuel—highlight the fact of the Incarnation, that God became one of us. As I put it last time, the eternal God the Son added to his (divine) nature, or set of characteristics, a second, human nature, a different set of characteristics.
That’s a unique event. No other person, not even the Father or the Spirit, has ever had two natures.
We have trouble with unique things, because we like to learn by comparing the new thing to something we already know. And when there’s nothing to compare the new thing to, we end up scratching our heads and asking questions that we have insufficient data to answer.
How does a divine person add a human nature? How does any person add any second nature?
The early church spent 400 years trying to figure that one out, and pretty much every theory they came up with along the way was a heresy. Finally, in AD 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, they managed to formulate a statement of what happened—a statement that has stood the test of the centuries since—but they gave up forever the possibility of actually explaining it.
Really—how does a person with two natures live out his life? How does he think? How can he be both mortal and immortal? How can he be both omnipresent and corporeal? How can he be omniscient and yet say, matter-of-factly, “I don’t know when I’m coming back” (Mk 13.32)?
I’d like to make up a story that I’m pretty sure never happened, just to make the point.
An angel shows up in the executive wing of heaven and approaches the receptionist.
“I’d like to see the Son, please,” he says.
The receptionist replies, “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
Now, that answer has never before been given to that request, so the angel is puzzled.
“I can’t?! What kind of an answer is that?! Why can’t I?”
“Because he’s not here. He’s out of the office.”
The angel is nonplussed, whatever that means.
“What do you mean, he’s ‘not here’?! He’s omnipresent. How can he not be here? That doesn’t even make any sense!”
“Well, it’s a little difficult to explain, but I assure you that he’s not here.”
The angel, perplexed, gives in.
“OK, I’ll play your little game. He’s ‘not here.’ Well, then, ‘where’ is he? I’ll go ‘there’ and see him.”
The receptionist takes a deep breath.
“Well, I can tell you where he is, and you can go there, but even if you do, you won’t be able to see him.”
Another deep breath.
“Because he can’t talk.”
“He can’t talk?! Are you kidding me?! How can he not talk?!”
The receptionist clears her throat.
“Because he’s a fetus. He’s not going to be able to talk for a couple of years yet.”
As I say, I’m pretty sure this never happened, first, because our imagined angel seems a little impatient for somebody who’s not a sinner, and more importantly, I don’t think any angels were surprised by the incarnation. Oh—and I doubt that the executive wing of heaven has a receptionist, although I can’t be completely sure of that.
But let’s take some time to think about this.
Paul tells us that among other things, the Son is the agent of providence—by him, all things are held together (Col 1.17). As far as I know, there’s no 25th Amendment in the Constitution of Heaven, whereby a member of the Godhead passes off his duties to another member in anticipation of his temporary incapacitation. So is the Son running the universe from Mary’s womb? as a fetus? as an embryo?
Is it true that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? Does he learn to walk the first time he tries, or does he “fall down and go boom”? Does Mary ever have to correct his grammar? Does he always get A’s in school? Does Joseph ever have to tell him, “Now, Joshua, if you keep holding the hammer that way, you’re going to hit your thumb!”?
My friend, you think you know this person, but there is more to him than you can ever know. He is unfathomable, unimaginable, indecipherable.
And he did this for you. When you were his enemy and determined to stay that way.
Immanuel. God with us.