Incarnation (nativity)

The term incarnation means ‘embodiment in the flesh’ and has a specific meaning for Christians as referring to Jesus Christ, who is believed to be the embodiment of God in the flesh. In other words, Christians believe that God came ‘down to earth’ in the human form of Jesus (whilst simultaneously still existing as a transcendent God).


About eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus, an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, referred to the coming of one called ‘Immanuel’, which means ‘God with us’ Isaiah 7:14. He mentioned that the baby would be the product of a virgin birth, which criteria was fulfilled in the New Testament accounts of the arrival of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).

The nativity

The Nativity by TintorettoThe ‘nativity’ is the popular name for the story of Jesus’ birth. The story includes how an angel visited the virgin Mary with the news that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear a baby boy who would be the ‘Son of the Most High’ (Luke 1:26-35). An angel also visited her betrothed, Joseph (Matthew 1:18–21) to tell him that Mary’s son would save the world from sin. Shepherds Luke 2:8-20 and wise men (magi) Matthew 2:1–12 were also told about the arrival of Jesus.

Human yet divine

The New Testament writers believed that Jesus was sent from heaven and was God’s Word become flesh:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.                   John 1:14 ESVUK      
Jesus was thus both fully human and fully divine, uniquely referred to as both the Son of God (Matthew 14:33) and the Son of Man (Luke 22:69; John 3:13). Although some later heresies suggested that Jesus gave up his divine nature when he came to earth, scripture refutes this: ‘For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily’ Colossians 2:9.
Because it is believed that Jesus led a sinless human existence, he can represent humanity within heaven, be an advocate for humankind and also bear the punishment that human sin deserves. His overcoming of death means that his followers will live on in heaven after their earthly life has finished. He also brings to the Godhead an understanding of human frailty.


The idea that the all-powerful God could come to earth as a vulnerable infant and grow up in poverty to serve others was used by the church as a lesson in humility for those seeking to follow Jesus. A famous early Christian hymn summarises this: 
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.                     Philippians 2:5–8 ESVUK    

Ever present

According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit of God which Christ embodied has subsequently been bestowed on each of Jesus’ followers John 14:16-17 (outwardly signified by baptism). This is distinct from the idea that the ‘spirit of God’ exists in each aspect of nature (known as pantheism). 

Other cultural references

  • Texts: The oxen traditionally depicted in nativity scenes are the subject of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen.
  • Art: The nativity has been depicted in various different media, such as panel paintings, stained glass windows , oil paintings and sculptures. Well known paintings include: The Nativity by Piero della Francesca, The Adoration of the Shepherds by Antonio da Correggio, The Nativity by Tintoretto
  • Films: In recent years, elements of the nativity story have been included in the comedies Nativity! and sequels Nativity 2 and 3.

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