I’ve been thinking a lot about incarnation over the last week. Incarnation is one of those theological words that tries to describe what essentially remains a mystery. In the history of the church, the term “incarnation” refers to the second person of the Trinity—Christ or the Son of God—taking a human body and becoming fully human and fully divine as the man Jesus. In a more general sense, the word “incarnation” means a person or thing that embodies a quality or concept. This second usage can have theological or non-theological meaning, for example, someone who is merciful might be called an incarnation of grace or someone who is heroic might be an incarnation of courage.
I’ve been thinking about incarnation over the past week due to the election of Barack Obama. (Don’t worry. I don’t think Obama is the Messiah or anything like that. Just relax.) Repeatedly in various forms of media, I heard African-Americans repeat the refrain that now; finally, they can tell their children that it really is true that an African-American can grow up to be anything he or she wants to be. The ideal of opportunity being available to all became, for African Americans, embodied or incarnate in Barack Obama. Whatever Barack Obama may or may not accomplish, whatever racism remains in our society, America changed last Tuesday. What was only a possibility became a reality. Something became real—or more real—that was not as real prior to Tuesday.
In my own way, I share the exultation of African-American parents. Unlike them, I do not know what it means to experience racism myself, since I am a Caucasian. Like them, however, I do know what it is to look into the beautiful brown faces of my bi-racial sons and worry about what racism they will experience. Although the bi-racial identity of Barack Obama was not played up as much as his African American identity during the campaign—largely because Obama self-identifies as African American—the fact that he is the product of two ethnicities and that he was raised by a white family had a big impact on me. When Obama won the Iowa Caucus, I turned to my wife and said in amazement, “Do you realize that it could actually happen that our sons might grow up never remembering a time when there had not been a bi-racial president?” I had never realized before adopting my sons at their births that I took for granted that the most powerful leader in our nation and maybe the world had features that resembled my own. Until Obama, my sons could not have experienced that barely conscious awareness that there was someone so powerful who looked like them.
I have pondered the importance of this kind of incarnation over the last year. Through my own hopes for my children, I think I can empathize with the women who wanted Hilary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and even the presidency for the sake of their daughters, along with the women who wanted Sarah Palin to become Vice President for the same reason. For that matter, I can perhaps imagine the longings of parents of Latino/Hispanic American, Asian American and Native American parents who still wait for someone to embody or incarnate the possibilities for greatness they see in their children.
As awesome as the human imagination is, we humans seem to need our ideals and beliefs to take on flesh and become a lived reality. We need role models and examples to help us live out our own best selves. Similarly, we need people of faith and communities of faith to live out what they say they believe about grace, love and peace, so that the world can know such abstract concepts can be more than just words. For the same reasons, I believe that God knew we needed the incarnation of Jesus Christ so that we could see the God that exceeds our understanding walk around, talk, love, laugh and even die just like us. May you be the incarnation of God’s love to someone who needs it this week.
Grace and Peace,