We don’t normally associate Christmas with our uniquely human need to understand and be understood, but I think the two are inextricably intertwined. I’ve spent my professional life learning how to communicate to people in a way that they can understand. That doesn’t mean I succeed all the time (or even most of the time). The more I work in this field, the more I believe that being understood, truly understood, is both our deepest desire as humans and the most difficult to realize. We spend our lives trying, and many of us never get there.
My five-year-old has already mastered vocabulary. He has grown-up conversations with anyone willing to talk to him. But because he is still so young, he has no idea how offensive he can be. Even when his words are technically appropriate and even though he has a big heart, he can be aggressive, cocky, bossy, insulting, nosy, and disrespectful. Just in the last week, his loud-mouthed totally-unaware-of-people-around-him ways has won him two separate snippy barbs from older people he has crossed (I, on the other hand, was all too aware, and boy did I ever have to bite my tongue to keep from snipping back.) This child needs many more years of practice communicating and understanding others before he’s safe to unleash on the unsuspecting public.
The complexity of understanding and being understood is in the layers. Language, body language, tone, and facial expressions all carry with them the power to change the meaning of the bare words. Add to that regional variations – words, phrases, and gestures have different meanings and different connotations in different areas. Things like life experience, mood, and context skew our interpretations as well. What I mean in frivolous jest, you might interpret as sacrilegious, and someone else might interpret as an insult veiled in humor. When I have been hurt, I’m guarded and more likely to assume malicious intent. When I’m naive, I assume the best and can be easily taken advantage of.
It can take a lifetime or longer to master this in just one language and culture. The best communicators in a given language and culture were born and raised within that language and culture. I believe that this is why God became human.
In the Incarnation, God immersed Godself into time and space, and into a physical body. I have often wondered why Jesus was conceived and gestated and delivered as an infant into the arms of two very human parents instead of just appearing in a human form as an adult. I believe that being born was God’s way of meeting us where we are at, of coming to us in a way that we can understand. Jesus was born into a human family in the midst of scandal. His was no easy life. He grew into an adult body and into an adult life the same way we do. He learned the language, the culture, the nonverbal nuances, the political weirdness, the jokes and insults, the shifting nature of allegiances and friendships and partnerships, the way we learn them. He lived it.
But Jesus didn’t just experience life as a human constrained by time and space. Jesus experienced death, too. One of his closest friends, Lazarus, died. John 11:35 contains one of the dearest descriptions of Jesus to me: “Jesus wept.” My grief, my tears, my pain at the loss of my daughter – these are all human things. They are not moral things, they are not wrong, they are human. And Jesus experienced them too. He understands.
But God didn’t stop there. In one final expression of solidarity with us, Jesus himself died. He endured that final wrenching separation that defines mortality. Jesus has gone down a road I still dread, and down which I have yet to travel. When I read his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, I see a man who dreaded death too. Jesus knows that uniquely human fear. He walked it. What kind of God does that? An amazing God. A committed God. A God who loves the people God created and who wants to restore what’s broken and damaged.
The Incarnation is a tangible demonstration of God’s commitment to communicate with us. God wants us to understand love and grace and how to live. God wants us to be part of bring healing and wholeness to the world. By becoming one of us, God can express that in a way we can understand, and God also understands us better. As the writer of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…” (Hebrews 4:15) This is the gift of the Incarnation.