Category Archives: Incarnation

The Sacrilege we call “Incarnation” (and the Divine Love of Drastic Measures)

Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral
Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us… (from John 1:14)

Last night was the annual Carol Service for St Mary’s College. As Chaplain, the organization of everything but the music was my responsibility (and for the online record, the St Mary’s Chapel Choir may be the best of its kind—anywhere). Intermingled with the ethereal, other-wordly beauty of the choral music were readings textured with earthy grit.

Other-worldly beauty plus earthy grit—these lie at the heart of Christmas. And the line above from John 1:14 lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.

Below is a slightly edited version of what I preached last night in Durham Cathedral…

The Word—God himself in the Person of Jesus—became flesh.

So GOD…with toenails. GOD…with pores, cuticles, and hair follicles. GOD vulnerable to bug bites, infections; even prone to body odor. GOD with a belly button. I

know this Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old, but I doubt “belly button” has been said from this holy pulpit with much frequency.

And maybe it is okay to laugh a bit. If my children have not yet giggled over the idea of God with bug bites and a belly button, then I will be shocked. To speak in such theological absurdities, to speak of God in this way, can evoke 1) laughter, because the idea of God with crumbs in his beard and wine on his breath seems almost comical.

But to speak with such earthy grit about God can also evoke offense. It assaults our sensibilities about the divine. God encased within a warm, membranous sack of amniotic fluid that spilled on the dirt clotting up dust in a Judean stable—it sounds sacrilegious, unworthy of the pleasing aesthetics of our choral music, too jarring for the lovely sentimentality of our favourite John Lewis commercial.

But this “sacrilege” we call “Incarnation”: the Word became flesh.

At the heart of Christian faith is the apparent “sacrilege” of God with a body, of God becoming materially visible, touchable. It also made him, of course, killable, as the Cross reminds us.

Some mysteries are not meant to be unraveled. But a reason is provided for this Incarnation. Why did “the Word become flesh and dwell among us?” From John chapter 3—because “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.

Why did Divinity end up with an umbilical cord and eyelashes? Because of a love so energetic that compelled God to take drastic measures.

When I was at university, I was quite the cynic toward love and romance. But in my final year I suddenly found myself ensnared, arrested, overpowered… and she had no idea. After much inner turmoil, eventually we began a dating relationship that, was fairy-tale wonderful. Six months later we had scheduled what now would now be called a “gap year.” She was leaving to spend a year in South America, and I was boarding a plane for a trip around the world. There at the airport gate I hugged her one last time, trying not to cry and make a scene. Then I told her, “the next time I see you, I’m going to ask you to marry me.” I turned away and boarded that plane.

Several months later I was on another plane. With no training in Spanish, I landed in the sweltering coastal heat of Guayaquil and traveled by night into the interior of Ecuador. The next day I somehow I managed to get onto this rickety old bus full of locals, chickens, maybe a pig or two, and there I was, a nervous gringo with a very conspicuous bouquet of flowers. We wound through remote villages in the Andes Mountains, and at around 3,000 metres above sea level, I hopped off the bus. Then, after some searching and waiting, I found the girl. She said yes, and she is sitting here tonight.

My point is this: When someone loves you fiercely, they will come after you. When someone fiercely loves you, they will bridge the distance, propel through the blockades; they will take drastic measures.

And that is why “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” For God so loved. No matter how many ferries or buses or planes or mules I would have had to take, I would have found that girl in those mountains. But God has made a cosmic leap, from the ethereal beauty of heaven into our earthy grit. Come hell or high water, no distance daunted him, and he came into our mess to find us.

That is why God had pores and eyelashes and dust between his toes: For God so loved.

It is the sort of love that makes angels sing aloud in the dark.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish

This Lenten Reflection originally appears at

I had the strangest Saturday.  To be clear, it was strange, but not bad.  You see, it was strange because of a couple of disparate things that came together to make my day.  Artists, whether in visual arts, film or even music, often use juxtaposition to make a point, to make something that you’d normally take for granted – well -strange, to jar your attention and uncork your imagination.  I think that’s what was happening to me. So I felt strange.

I spent my midday downtown with a buddy at a “Mardi Gras Primer.”  While this festival was filled with life and jubilation, it was decidedly less debaucherous than its Crescent City cousin (this was after all, only a primer, no appearance from Bacchus himself). We sat and listened to music teeming with joy and tradition, rich tones and raucous improvisations.  The saints came marching in along with literally dozens of brass playing “strutters” and of course, “Hey Pocky Way” had its hearing. The dance floor filled with an ever-evolving mix of goofballs, Deadheads, toddlers, NPR Sustainers, girls from Raleigh, and guys in bands….

I remember marveling at the common joy, the shared humanity, the unbridled enthusiasm and overflowing affection for our dear Bull City. We scooped up our crawfish trying to avoid bits of soggy spiced newspaper or the wrong stalk of celery and then held a clinic with the entry-level agrarian girls that stole our seats on exactly where to pinch the tail and pull for maximum crawdad consumption efficiency. I left happy, filled, unable to touch my eyes even after several hand washes, bearing the proper olfaction of a proper Fat Tuesday.

I returned home to the kids and our rigorously orthodox dinner, bath, and pre-bed liturgy. After they were down and out for the night in their white-noise washes, I set about my priestly task.  You see, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and its copious requirements and descriptions of what clergy does, for the sake of their people and on behalf of God. I don’t envy their job, or the guiding divine mandate that required it, but as I’ve waded through the tedium of the text, I’ve been acutely aware of how little my job as a pastor requires me to shower. Cutting up animals and burning grain offerings is not even implied in my job description. On a typical Sunday, I feel particularly handy (in a holy way) if I use a power drill to raise and lower the basketball goals out of our line of sight or when prepare the already prepared bread and juice for Communion.  That said, I set about my priestly, and carbon-neutral, task of converting last year’s Palm Sunday palms into this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes.

You see that’s precisely where the juxtaposition lay. Last year’s party, this year’s fasting. My hands, the same hands that still reeked of feasting, that were beginning to betray the sour of prebed, spit-up, now overwhelmingly stunk like singed hand hair and carbon. Where I had witnessed so much joy, a motley krewe of a congregation, I now flashed back to our Hosanna-singing, palm-toting congregation and the small pile of embers their messianic accoutrement had come to. There was a stark realization, a both/and affirmation, that both experiences are real, and valid, and faithful even and especially in their seeming contradiction.  That human beings, imaging their creative Creator God, were neither made for all party nor all funeral procession. But somehow, in Christ and by his Spirit, both at the same time.

Ashes, and yet Crawfish.

Ash Wednesday, and yet Mardi Gras.

Saint Paul got at this in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote about his ministry and his hardships. After a grocery list of difficulties, he gets into the paradoxes. “…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good; genuine, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on…” (2 Corinthians 6:8-9a).

As I enter into Lent, I pray that I remember that juxtaposing stench on my hands from Saturday. That it might somehow reinforce that dying-living life that Christ lived and made possible for me, for us, for this world. That I might not fear that seeming contradiction, but submit to its foolish-wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). And that I might “know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so somehow, attaining the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10).

Advent with the Gathering Church

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood
© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin

Roman Soldiers, Jesus, & Heroic Little Boys

My 4-yr old son was playing with a forbidden set of toys this morning before I left the house.  They are forbidden by his big brother because they are his personal property, his collection of toy Roman soldiers.  There are figurines of Augustus Caesar—august and fierce with sword drawn—and a couple of centurions, armed to the teeth.  Living in the North of England, we hear about Romans.  The kids have hiked atop this big old wall Hadrian had his troops build some 1800 years ago to keep out those pesky Scots.

The little boy was at work crafting a battle scene.  He is a scrappy fella, and nothing thrills him more than a rough wrestling match with Daddy.  Though as sweet as he can be, there is violence in his bloodstream.  Little boys are taught to be violent by various influences (like maybe the father-son wrestling matches), but the raw matter is already there, crying out of their veins and genes like Abel’s blood from East Eden ground.

While grabbing something from my wardrobe (not as cool as the one from Lewis-lore), I casually mentioned to my little boy, “You know, those guys are like the soldiers who beat up Jesus.”

(This is what happens when you get a dad who wrestles all the time with ethical and theological complexities too big for his head.  He interrupts your play with loaded comments.)

He held the soldier in his hand.  A flash of realization appeared in his enormous brown eyes, as if the thing in his hand was suddenly discovered to be dirty or contaminated.  Then flashed a sense of justice.

“Well I would get those guys and kill them.”

It is always disturbing to hear a little kid speak with such rough words.  But he was operating out of a sense of just indignation.  He was like Peter in Gethsemane, hapless and confused, swinging a sword at someone’s ear.

“What’s crazy though,” I continued, “is that Jesus Himself could have killed those guys but he didn’t.”  This struck harder than the earlier announcement that his toy was an embodiment of someone who may have beat up Jesus.

Alien.  Incomprehensible.  Jesus didn’t do anything?  He didn’t wield His heaven light saber and take those bullies out?

My son was being confronted with one of the most perplexing wonders of history, that God Incarnate permitted men to have their way with Him.  And echoing over the whole moment is the Lukan record of this prayer: “Father, forgive them…”.

“Did those guys become nice, then?”he asked, perhaps apprehending that kindness and mercy can actually wield as powerful effects as swords and light sabers.

“At least one of them did.” I told him about the centurion Mark mentions who confessed Jesus to be “Son of God” after seeing how He died.


I’m not sure what happened  in his playtime after this brief father-son interaction.  After the ritual little farewells, I left for a day of study.

Yeah, I just left.  I left him there with the toy solider in His hand and one of the greatest mysteries of the universe banging around in his little head.

It was banging around in my head, too.  Still not sure how to take in the restraint of the Son of God on Golgotha.

Who knows how that 4-yr old little soul will process the divine restraint at the Cross as he heads to preschool.  But as far as his imagination goes, I guess he can now reenact battle scenes with at least one saved centurion when he gets home.  If, that is, his brother doesn’t fight with him over his toys….


Incarnation: God as Tangible, Visible… & Kill-able

My kids want to see God.  They want to touch Him.  They want to hear His voice.  They want to feel His arms cradling and hugging them.

So do I.

Divine intangibility is an age-old problem for human societies.  One practical way to bridge the distance between heaven and earth is to craft an object to which divine status or divine qualities are assigned—idols.  They make the holy and numinous tangible.

Israel was not permitted to portray their God with physical materials.  It must have been challenging for some of those Israelites when they had to face an invading army whose god was elevated in shiny splendor for all to see and fear.  In the very location in Israel’s Tabernacle or Temple where an idol should have been (according to common Ancient Near Eastern practice) there was absolutely nothing.  The ark of the covenant served as a throne of sorts for the presence of God… but nothing chiseled or carved was permitted to sit on it.  That holy throne displayed simply the invisibility of YHWH.  God made Himself present to His people not through touch-able objects.  His primary means of communication were verbal and textual, not visual (though there were certainly visual displays at times).  YHWH was revealed primarily by His words… not by His shape, appearance, or His hold-able image:

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire.  You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Dt 4:12).

But then the Word became flesh.

My doctoral work has placed me right in the middle of John 1:14a: “καί ὁ λόγος σάρξ ἐγένετο /and the Word became flesh.”  So I am doing a lot of thinking about the Incarnation.  What struck me of late is that my gratitude for the Incarnation primarily lies in the wondrous appreciation that at least some folks—at least for a few years—could touch God.  They could hear His voice, sometimes up close, sometimes up on a hill, sometimes over a dinner table.  There were little kids that sat in His lap, that had His hand placed on their head for a blessing.  The Incarnation made God see-able and hear-able: “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29, 36).

Not carved.  Not chiseled.  Not a stationary statue fixed within a holy structure.  Through the Incarnation, God was loose and at large.  One day in Bethany, the other out in Galilee.  Sometimes on a boat.  Often in a home.  That’s right—GOD in someone’s home.  GOD holding someone’s kid.  GOD serving up supper.

But also: GOD hanging naked on wooden posts.

This is how the Incarnation affects more than just some people over a span of a few years: the Incarnation that made God touchable to little kids who needed a divine hug also made Him touchable for men whose hands could grip like a vise.  I did not get to feel the arms of Jesus wrapped around me.  But my entire life is drastically changed because His arms were once splayed wide open for the longest afternoon in history.

The Incarnation meant that some could hear His voice—sometimes up close (“today you will be with me in Paradise), sometimes up on a hill (“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani“), sometimes over a dinner table (“Take; this is my body”).  The Incarnation made God hear-able, tangible, visible… and therefore also kill-able.  The little kids could run up and tug his cloak that He might place His hands of blessing on the tops of their little heads.  And soldiers could strip that cloak and then thorn-crown the head of God.

This is from Tertullian:

“Christ… having been sent to die, had necessarily to be also born, that he might be capable of death” (De Carne Christi, ch. vi, 177).

My kids and I missed those precious years when God was living in a village, when He was someone’s neighbor, when He was walking the hills with other pilgrim-families to Jerusalem for the hol(y)days.  But we derive daily blessings from this Lord who blessed the heads of other children.  This is because He was not just the Lamb of God to be beheld by mortal eyes, but the Lamb of God who was slain by mortal hands for the sins of the world.