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The way of the manger: How the incarnation transforms work into witness

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“Our Lord was not predestined by his Father to birth where we might have expected him…He was born, by divine design, into a laboring man’s dwelling…Our Lord precedes understanding with doing. He sets the way before the truth.” –Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef

With each passing holiday season, we see the sudden manifestation of an underlying cultural dualism, with gift-givers either over-indulging in the material stuff or feverishly guarding their spirits and souls from the cold grip of consumerism.

Yet in our rightful wariness of Christmastime materialism, we should be careful not to retreat into an equally damaging spiritual escapism, forgetting that the Christmas story is, after all, about peace on earth. As Rev. Robert Sirico writes, the incarnation reminds us “how seriously God takes the material world which he made, and how redemption, in the Christian understanding, is accomplished precisely through and within this material world.”

When God became a man, he paved a new path, but did so through the peculiar power of embodied truth. Jesus’ divine entrance was not the ethereal spectacle many expected for the Savior of the world, particularly if his primary goal was to pluck us away to our heavenly home. Instead, Jesus modeled  what transformation actually looks like in the here and now—here in the flesh, here on the earth, here in everyday life.

In a set of reflections at Made to Flourish, Russ Gehrlein explores this reality from the standpoint of our work and economic engagement, noting that Jesus’ earthy entrance via a worker’s stable was just the beginning. Jesus’ life would be filled with mundane physical labor and all the spiritual meaning and significance it brings:

Jesus’ coming to Earth in human form also demonstrated that God places value on the physical world. As a man, Jesus could truly be “God with us.” He touched, healed, and shed real tears. He died a real death and was raised from the dead in a new body. This resurrection body is what we will receive at the consummation of all things (see 1 Cor 15). Moreover, because Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, he alone is qualified to be our high priest, having been tempted to sin, but never giving in (Heb 4:15).

Knowing this helps us to understand the sacred-secular divide is based on a false assumption that the spiritual world is of greater priority to God than the physical creation. Tom Nelson, in Work Matters, observes how “Working with his hands day in and day out in a carpentry shop was not below Jesus. Jesus did not see his carpentry work as mundane or meaningless, for it was the work his Father had called him to do.” Because Jesus did the work, it was both excellent and sacred. As Jesus’s disciples, the work we do with a spirit of excellence is also sacred, in and out of busy or difficult seasons.

In their book, Faithful in All God’s House, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef frame this within the order of Jesus’ famous self-descriptor: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

By entering the world in human flesh, working as a carpenter, and living a life of cooperation with nature and neighbor, Jesus was putting the way before the truth, helping us connect unseen dots between the material and spiritual, in turn:

Our Lord’s heavenly Father destined him to be raised in a carpenter’s family. So, at least, is the tradition regarding Joseph.Carpentry, like most skills, can be talked about endlessly but is really learned only by doing. Oh yes, the master carpenter tells the apprentice what to do, but the apprentice comes to knowing carpentry only by doing it. That makes all the difference between a sagging door hung by a novice and a neatly fitted one hung by a craftsman. The novice knows about carpentry; the master knows carpentry. This is true about most of living. First the doing, under guidance, and then the understanding. First the way; then the truth.

Remember that our Lord was not predestined by his Father to birth where we might have expected him, say into Herod’s palace or a Scribe’s scholarly abode. He was born, by divine design, into a laboring man’s dwelling. He draws, in all his teaching, on examples taken from every man’s daily life. It is entirely in keeping with his upbringing by Joseph and Mary, according to God’s predestined intent, that our Lord precedes understanding with doing. He sets the way before the truth. His hermeneutic (that is, his method of interpretation and understanding) is an apprenticeship hermeneutic. 

Likewise, in our daily work and witness—whether in our families, communities, and workplaces or basic social interactions and economic exchanges—we are called to put right ideas into right form, and not just in common-good, common-grace sorts of ways. Jesus’ ministry didn’t end with his carpentry. He brought heaven down to earth in word and deed, bringing whole-life transformation to human spirits, human bodies, human pocketbooks, and beyond. 

We have the same opportunity to bring divine and redemptive truth across the economic order, planting seeds of life and freedom in the work of our hands, the words we speak, the virtues we uphold, the gifts we bring, and the exchanges in which we participate. Our ideas and forms come from ways that are higher than our ways, and our personal witness isn’t confined to only the tangible or only the transcendent. The Spirit speaks, we listen, and we love.

As we reflect on the implications of the manager scene, we see far more than a lowly man in a lowly barn, and we also see more than a ticket to heaven or a get-out-of-jail-free card. We see the way, the truth, and the life—God’s primary model and strategy for bringing the not-yet to the here and now in our everyday work and service.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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