Christmas, the Incarnation, and Making All Things Right
There's a lot that is not right in our world. There's a lot that is messy, broken, ugly. None of us has to look far to see that this is true. And yet we have this promise... a promise that began in the Garden and was foretold by the prophets of Israel: the Holy One is coming, the Savior, the Redeemer, and he will make all things right.
Sometimes it can be hard to believe that promise. It's easy to look at the world today, at the Church today, at my life today, and to see only the messy, the broken, and the ugly. And often what is held up for us as a solution, as a medicine, as a "fix" against the messy, the broken, and the ugly is a preemptive artificial angelism, a weak attempt to paint over the humanity that we all bear, a thin and ineffective attempt to make it so that we won't... hurt. But that doesn't work. It has never worked. I think the only substantial and effective solution is to take a deep dive into the incarnation... into reality.
I keep thinking back to Francis of Assisi, to his realism, to this humble poor man of Assisi who radically impacted the Church and the world. Francis embodied the suffering Christ. He bore in his body the wounds of Christ. And Francis brought the poor and the humble wealthy to the poor Christ in the creche, a tradition he started.
Imagine the scene, that first Christmas night... Mary and Joseph... no room in the inn. And they sought shelter in a stable, a cave, with the animals. Mary, Our Lady, the Mother of God, gave birth in a filthy place that smelled of animals and all that animals bring. This is not a pretty image on a Christmas card. It's shocking. The King of the Universe becomes a dependent baby and is born into poverty in a place that most of us would categorize as filthy. Most of us think of the cute donkeys, the cow, the sheep... I think of the gnats, the mosquitos, the spiders. The long travel, which was forced upon them from a tyrannical ruler, the exhaustion, the confusion and immediacy that comes with childbirth, especially if there is no room for the birth to happen. I think of the pain, the heartache. This is what Christ enters into... that first time over 2000 years ago, and again today in my life and yours.
The birth of Christ was not cute. He arrived as a warrior... under the radar, yes –Silent Night and all – but, still, a warrior. And once he arrived, the days of Satan's reign were numbered. Universally, but also in my life and yours.
At the same time, I cannot ignore the poetry of the whole scene. God becomes man in Bethlehem, a city whose name means House of Bread. The Baby God is laid in a manger, a feed trough. It is a sign, a symbol and so much more. He has come as a warrior. He has come to set us free. And he has also come to be our food. This same baby about 30 years or so later will tell us that he is the Bread of Life and that if we do not eat his flesh and drink his blood then we will have no life in us. He said he came to bring us life, and life to the full. He himself has become our food. All of this is too marvelous for me. It's more than I can take in. Thankfully, Christmas is a season, and I can sit with this for a couple of weeks at least. But for now, on this eve of Christ's birth, I humbly offer you this poem I wrote recently as I anticipated this celebration of Christmas. And, I wish you from my heart a very Merry Christmas!
ONE OF US
For Gerard Manley Hopkins
Shrouded Mystery come down from above
The epiclesis of the Father’s love
Holy Spirit overshadowing her;
Bright wings rising as blazing plumes of Myrrh.
Still a child yet she’s dignity defined
Full of grace and favor, God’s love enshrined.
Humbly to the angel’s invitation
Her fiat she offers for all creation.
For nine months he grew in her sacred womb,
Adored – magnified – with a heart abloom
With gratitude to God who himself thrusts,
Condescending to become one of us.
Hidden in obscurity and silence,
In unknown, unbidden, magnificence,
Jesus, nestled in straw – sweet poverty! –
Reveals and veils his sublime mystery.
A simple child, a babe. Nothing special
To make him stand out. No crown celestial,
No scepter of power. Only utter
Dependence on his father and mother.
God is no longer far up in heaven
Rather has returned as to the garden
To walk and talk with us in his fullness.
In Jesus, God has become one of us.