When it comes to the amazing mystery of the Incarnation— God becoming man—I think people of all time can share in the wonder of it, but that certain aspects might strike people of a certain time or culture more deeply than other aspects for other peoples.
Of course, our main problem today is not being struck by it at all. Our ability to be appreciate what it is we celebrate at Christmas and experience awe is coated over with candy canes and commercialism.
But when we do stop and think about it, we can of course be surprised by God's humility in being born into poverty. But being a less class-conscious society than others, this detail may not be as amazing as it was to other times and places.
His weakness may be more thought-provoking to us, but not in the same way as to the cultures surrounding the Holy Land at the time, or even the dictatorships of the twentieth century. To them, strength was everything; might was right. To us who at least in theory have more compassion on the weak and vulnerable, it's rather the giving up of control that is more astonishing.
In our culture, we live and move and breathe in the illusion of control. We do have an extraordinary amount of control over our own lives, especially compared to times past—with all our technology, wealth, medical advances, etc. But it is an illusion. Occasionally, something enormous will break through the illusion and wake us up: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, 9/11, etc. But we quickly fall back into a doze, especially if the incident did not touch us personally. The economic downfall has had some impact in showing us that even hard work and following worldly financial advice to a T is still not fail-proof protection from financial ruin. And all of us will eventually encounter illness or accident in our families or ourselves; truly, any of us could die at any moment.
When this truth does break through to us, it usually terrifies us. Or makes us angry, usually at God. So when we stop and think about the fact that Almighty God, who created the universe and can do anything, became a helpless baby, totally dependent upon His own creatures, it is astounding. Which of us would do that? We may admit, however grudgingly, when we have to, that we don't have complete control over our own lives, but how many of us would willingly give it up?
The other element of the Incarnation that is particularly meaningful to our day is the depth of His coming to us—the absolute solidarity of the way He did it.
Think about it. He could have just appeared in all His glory and delivered His message, voila! handing over a Bible already printed by Heavenly Press, infusing the disciples with all the knowledge they needed, and accomplishing our salvation in some much easier fashion. Or, even if He wanted to save us by becoming human—He didn't need to become a baby or suffer on the cross. He could have taken on flesh as an adult, appeared for a day, and suffered a mere paper cut. His blood is so precious, that a single drop is enough to save the universe.
Why then did he come as a baby? In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity? Why did He live among His people for thirty years, an ordinary life as a craftsman in a poor village? Why did He spend three years teaching, preaching, and healing? Why didn't He just give the disciples a weekend workshop?
In our fast-paced, sound-bite, bottom-line society, all this seems such a waste of valuable time. He could have done all that with much more time-efficiency.
Why did He do it the way He did? Because He loves us. He wanted to spend time with us. And because He came not merely to tell us how to live but to show us.
Our children often want to grow up quickly, to gain skills and knowledge in a day. We know they can't grow a foot overnight like the kid in the movie Big; nor can they become a virtuoso on their chosen instrument in a week or a month. We laugh at their impatience. But aren't we the same? We want to lose weight or grow in virtue right away, without any work.
But that's not the way God has set things up. Anything worthwhile takes time and effort. And instead of merely telling us, “Suck it up; this is the way it is,” He came down here with us—as one of us—and lived it too. They say that parents teach by example, and God is the best Father there is.
No one in all the universe since its creation has expressed such solidarity as God did when He became a little human baby two thousand years ago. Solidarity defined.