You’ve eaten at an authentic Mexican restaurant before, right? Have you ever ordered carne asada? Do you remember what it is? Steak. Meat. Flesh. Hence the “carne” in in-“carn”-ation.
To put on meat or flesh is incarnation and that process is exactly what we celebrate at Christmas: God came down to earth and put on flesh and lived among us. He was named Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Mt 1:23). How is he with us? By being like us: he has on flesh.
We all know what it’s like to incarnate something because, in a sense, all kinds of things try to live out through our flesh. I realized this one day when my sister-in-law tried some of my homemade salsa and asked for the recipe. I was happy to write it down for her real quick, but then I realized I didn’t have a recipe. I had learned to make my salsa through trial and error, eventually coming to a method that had no formula, but was created by the means of my senses. I can estimate how many onions or peppers I need by looking at how big my batch of tomatoes are. I can sense if it needs more salt by taking a quick taste at the end. I can sense if I added enough garlic by smelling the end result. I can feel if the tomatoes are worth using by giving them a slight squeeze. I can tell when to stop the food processor by listening to the noise its making. It’s incarnate salsa. I use all my senses to make it. It lives in my flesh. If you want to learn how to truly make it the way I do, you’ll have to watch me make it over and over again, not simply follow a recipe.
Surely you have similar things in your life. That’s why not just anyone can make cookies “like Grandma used to make,” even if you have her own recipe in hand. Her cookies are living inside of her, making their way out through years of practice and all of her senses.
Maybe you’re not into cooking and the analogy is lost on you, so let’s look at another theme, like music. For me, music is an incredible joy. There are few things I love more than just sitting down at a piano and playing a spontaneous song. I’ll choose a key and therefore know what notes are allowed to be played, and hit them all in random order to see what comes out. The unrehearsed music lives inside of me and wears my flesh. The rhythm is felt through my fingers. The next note I should hit is felt in my ears. My very soul dictates how softly or harshly I should hit any given note. The inner music of my life is released through my fingers, creating soundtracks for whatever I’m going through. I remember sitting down at the piano after my wife and I were told that we were going to have a very early miscarriage and releasing those bitter feelings through music.
For me, music is more feeling than knowledge. I’m one of those people who suffered through music theory in college—even to the point of failing the second level class. Now I have nothing against music theory and all of that, but music for me has always been more feeling than theory. It has always been more inside of me than it has been fully comprehended. It’s part of what separates me from robots. If you mess around with a lot of musical technology like I do, then you know that robots are completely capable of writing music. With one hit of a button and some chord direction, they can piece together an entire song for you in seconds, because they’re aware of how the math and science of music works. And I can use that math and science, but I long for the soul of music, and that is something I find more inside myself than on paper. It’s living inside me. It has put on my flesh.
Want the Holy Spirit—synonymously understood as the Spirit of Jesus (Ac 16:7)—to live inside of you in the same way a recipe or music might? Then you need to practice him. You need to get him so caught up in your senses that you become a walking WWJD bracelet. Study him—every word of every Gospel. Recognize how he acted in every scenario. Why did he just wipe dirt in a blind man’s eyes? Who is the woman about to be stoned that you’re supposed to save? Are there pharisees around you and are you buying into their message? Are you the pharisee?
Memorize him. Learn him. Live him.
In Ernest Cline’s sci-fi tale, Ready Player One, a famous video game creator passes away and leaves the legacy of his games behind. One of these games, OASIS, has more or less changed the world. Millions of people throw on virtual reality glasses and completely submerge themselves in the game, many of them hunting for a secret he put in the game that contains his entire fortune. But how will those searching for it find it? By getting into the very same things that the creator was into. They need to think like him, be like him and study him. These seekers become obsessed with the OASIS creator’s life. The main character basically dedicates all of his spare time to being just like him. He researches all of the creator’s favorite films, songs, bands, TV shows and video games. If the creator was into it, he committed himself to it as well.
As Christians, this is exactly how we must be with Jesus. We need to have him so deep down in our bones that we solve all the challenges that come our way by living him out. We need to face the world the same way he did: with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We need to know him so well that we uncover the secrets he’s left for us to find—secrets we could only ever find by our obsession with him.
We need to let the Spirit of Jesus live vibrantly inside of us and not lie dormant somewhere, waiting for us to care a little bit. He is worth it all and we shouldn’t expect him to be able to bring the Kingdom of Heaven here to earth in fullness if we’re not going to let him work through us. We must let the Holy Spirit put on our flesh.
This is an adapted excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
My thoughts on incarnation are heavily inspired by Michael Frost’s brilliant book, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement.