The Wonderful Exchange
At this time of the year Christians celebrate what Karl Barth has called “the mystery and miracle of Christmas” – the incarnation – the birth of Jesus as a baby. God selflessly empties himself into his own creation, not for any externally imposed reason, but as a free expression of his own unconditional love. He does this because he wants to share his life, the Trinitarian life of Father, Son and Spirit, with his creation. He does this because he wants to be in fellowship, in relationship, with us. He does it because, as Barth again says, he has determined not to live without us.
Irenaeus said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ…through his transcendent love, (became) what we are that he might bring us to be even what he is himself”. Athanasius put it this way: “He became man that we might be made divine”. As theologian Michael Jinkins explains, he meant by this that through Christ we share the very life of God. He is affirming “our real participation by faith in the character of God (the self-giving, kenotic, love of other), which is revealed in Jesus Christ.”
This has become known as the great or wonderful or glorious exchange – that he became what we are that we might become as he is. James B. Torrance captures this cogently when he writes, “The prime purpose of the incarnation, in the love of God, is to lift us up into the life of communion, of participation in the very triune life of God”.
Christ-centred, Trinitarian theology is Incarnational. Not as one act among many equally important acts, but as the unique, central act in atonement, salvation, sanctification, fellowship and eternal life. More, the Incarnation isn’t just about action, but about who is acting – the Son, who becomes the human face of God, God-with-us. Jesus is born, lives, dies, and is resurrected for us. But more importantly, Jesus is born, lives, dies and is resurrected for us.
Jesus is not just someone who comes along to fix things for us. He is not a “divine spanner” to fix the relationship with God. He is not a divine accountant who balances the books. He doesn’t oversee a business transaction to set us right with God. We are right with God, in fellowship, in Him. It’s a “who” question. It’s about relationships, not rules and regulations. It’s about fellowship, not formulas.
It’s no accident that Athanasius, who provides the first complete list of the New Testament books we have, and who articulates well the reasons for a Trinitarian understanding of God (against Arius), also believed the celebration of Christmas was very important. This is, after all, what it is all about – the revelation of the Father, his unconditional love (John 3:16-17; Phil 2:5-8), and his eternal plan of adoption and fellowship for all mankind. Christmas eloquently demonstrates who God is, and the hope for all human beings, even in the midst of suffering and sorrow.
Christmas also argues against the incomplete views of God that deny or minimize either his humanity (Docetism, Gnosticism in general) or his divinity (Ebionitism). Jesus comes as flesh and blood – as a dependant baby. The Master of the Universe, who created and holds it all together, becomes one of us.
This is why Athanasius thought Christmas was such an important part of the Christian liturgy. It really is the message of hope and joy for all mankind. A message which has never been needed more than it is now.