God became flesh.
God became human.
Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.
The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.
The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.
Why? There are many reasons.
The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.
The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.
In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.
The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.
Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves. They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.
As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.
But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.
God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.
But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.
God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.
When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.
As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.
But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.
As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.
In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.
The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.
When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.
Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity: “I understand!”