There is a well-known illustration of the incarnation that is often shared at Christmastime called “The Man & The Birds”. The end of the story focuses on a man who comes to realize that he would have to change into a bird in order to help other birds find shelter in a winter storm. This simple analogy helped the man who had no faith to understand why God needed to send his son to be Immanuel – God with us. I recall hearing it for the first time as a young Christian in the late ‘70s. Click on this link to listen to a five-minute audio version of Paul Harvey telling it.
For some reason I got to thinking about it last night on the way to chapel. I do appreciate the main point of the story: that if a man could become a bird he could speak their language and lead the lost birds to safety, just as God became man at the birth of Jesus so that he could teach us (who are also lost) and lead us all to safety. However, the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that there is so much more to the incarnation that what this illustration implies. Without tearing it down, let me try to add to the story a little bit with my own sanctified imagination.
The first thing I wondered to myself was, “What became of the man after he turned into a bird?” Was it just a temporary gig, or did he stay a bird the rest of his life?
This strange question ties in with my theologically incomplete understanding of the Christmas story that I had as a child, which was summed up in the phrase, “God became a man.” Only much later did I learn the orthodox truth that God the Father did not become a baby. When Jesus was born, God the Father did not cease to exist. God had a Son who was his equal in essence but unique in person. Jesus was and is fully man and fully divine. He invites us to relate to God the Father in the same way that he did during his time on earth. This is a rather essential biblical principle when discussing and living out in practical terms the doctrine of the Trinity.
The second thought I had is that the illustration does not go into nearly enough detail to explain the nature and result of the incarnation. However, if we were to fully carry out the man and the birds illustration to properly reflect and parallel the full implications of the incarnation, we would have to make some adjustments.
Here is what I would add:
- The man-bird would have to start out as a fertilized egg in a nest, get hatched, grow up, learn to fly, and then try to help the birds caught in a storm later on.
- As a man-bird, he would be 100% bird in every respect; he would also be fully man. However, he would willingly lay aside the glory of his humanness. (See Phil 2:5-8.)
- Although some would follow him, most of the birds he would try to teach would oppose him and want him dead, since he was calling himself equal with man.
- This man-bird would be betrayed by one of his own flock, and he would willingly die for the sins of all birds.
- This man-bird would rise from the dead, appear to his followers for a short time, and depart to be with the man who sent him until it was time for all things to end.
- One day, this man-bird would return to judge the living and the dead; he would reign forever as King of all the birds, and sit at the right hand of his father.
This is no longer a five-minute illustration, but perhaps the story is a bit more complete.
My intent was not to ruin a perfectly good analogy that has been told for decades. I simply wanted to point out that there is much more to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation than what we normally think. Jesus did not merely come to earth to show us the way to safety.
Yes, Jesus did show us the way. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus also came to die for you and me, and He is coming again to reign. These are worth celebrating at Christmas!