Every Christmas season I look for a new book that will help focus my thoughts on the old message of the Incarnation in a new and fresh way. This season Oxford theologian Alister McGrath's Incarnation has helped me do that.
Incarnation is a small, beautifully illustrated hardback book wherein McGrath reflects on the mysteries of his subject in seven short chapters, melding scripture, theological reflection, poetry, and fine art prints. In this way, the book engages both mind and imagination. It is thoroughly orthodox and yet does not reduce the mystery of God's coming in flesh to mere doctrine or theology. Artwork like George Richmond's Christ and the Woman of Samaria really opens up the narrative by helping demonstrate what it was to encounter Christ.
I like how McGrath speaks about the the development of doctrine as an attempt to preserve mysteries -- something it cannot fully do because human words cannot do justice to the person of Jesus. "Doctrines were never meant to be a substitute for Christian experience. Rather, they were meant to be a kind of 'hedge,' marking out and safeguarding an area of thought about God and Christ which seemed to be faithful to Christian experience on one hand, and Scripture on the other." He notes how the church struggled for years with how to make sense of the Incarnation, finally adopting the "two natures" formula in the council of Chalcedon in 451 -- a "hedge" which is faithful to Scripture and experience but, in the end, like all doctrines, finally mysterious.
The book's scope is clearly beyond Bethlehem. In the seven chapters, each of which can be read in less than 20 minutes, he addresses Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, as Saviour, as the one who called the disciples, as the teacher with authority, as the friend of sinners, as the way, the truth, and the life, and as God with us. The prose is fresh, and the poetry excerpts are helpful in giving new metaphors for old truths. For example, he recites Thomas Prestell's "Psalm for Christmas Day Morning:"
Behold the great Creator makes
Himself a house of clay,
A robe of virgin flesh he takes
Which he will wear for ay.
Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
Like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
And God in cradle lies.
House of clay. God in cradle. The imagery is rich. The inclusion of such poetry in the book, much of which will be unfamiliar to most, really creates a richer meditation -- new perspectives on an old truth.
Incarnation is the second book in a series of forthcoming books by Fortress Press, all authored by McGrath, which will explore Christian doctrines in a similar way. (Only one other title, Creation, has been published thus far). I commend them all to your reading as a way to awaken your mind and imagination to the deep truths and mysteries of our faith.