“And he shall be called ‘Emmanuel’–which means, ‘God with us.’” Mt. 1:23
She didn’t know what it was at first. ‘Look out the window, down at the snow,” her students said. She had already, several times that day, and all she’d seen was snow, and lots of footprints in it. Nothing unusual about that, not in January, at least. But the teacher looked again outside her classroom window up on the third floor and finally it started to dawn on her. Those weren’t just random footprints in the snow; they spelled words. “Tricia…[that was her name]….will….you….marry…me….Scott.”
All the kids in her classroom laughed when they saw her turn beet red. The newspaper article in which I read this story long ago said that she said Yes.
It took the church a while too to figure out what we received that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, 21 centuries ago. We were so clueless, in fact, that we didn’t even know it was Christmas, we didn’t even have a name for it yet. But the events of that night were every bit as much an expression of love, and an invitation to love, as Scott’s footprints below Tricia’s classroom window, only more so. To carry the imagery even further, just as Scott was offering himself to Tricia for ever and ever, until death should them do part, God was offering himself to us, for ever and ever, even through death and beyond.
God offering himself to us, in a way we can see, touch, feel and understand, the church has long had a big technical theological word for that, called “Incarnation,” which means, “in—flesh—ment.”
Long before we had Christmas, Christians celebrated “The Feast of the Incarnation.” You won’t find the word “Incarnation” in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, its still the best word to describe what happened, and what we received on that first Christmas night. The word was coined after the New Testament was written, but the definition was already emerging in the experience of the disciples with Jesus. He stands up in a storm-tossed boat and says “Peace be still!” and suddenly the waves calm, and the hair on the back of the disciples’ neck stands up and they look at each other wondering, “Just what sort of man is this?” All they can do is fall on their faces and worship, something Jews would otherwise resist doing to any other human being. And yet, he was so sleepy from all his teaching and ministering that just a few minutes before they had to awaken him during the storm. So he really, really was fully human too.
How to explain the harmony of humanity and divinity in Jesus? We can’t. The Incarnation of God in Christ is a mystery, not an explanation. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying. This past week, I read through some of a Fourth Century booklet, called, “On the Incarnation,” by St. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. He speaks for most Christians of long ago when he fails to express much surprise over the idea of God taking on human flesh and showing up among us. People all around the world have long had stories of gods and spirits showing up in human flesh. But Athanasius said that these gods and spirits usually showed up to overawe and overwhelm people with their power, by doing eye-popping, mind-blowing signs and wonders. Some allegedly took on flesh to destroy enemy armies and impose new kingdoms and dynasties, so that future Pharoahs or Caesars or emperors could claim to be “sons of gods” too. Sometimes Greek gods like Hermes or Zeus were said to show up and do mischief, like seducing or scamming someone. But their “in-flesh-ment” was always temporary, and involved much more risk, cost and obligation for the mortals involved, than for the gods themselves.
What struck Athanasius and the earliest Christians was the reverse: the risk, cost, sufferings and obligation to the God who was “en-fleshed” in Jesus. Emmanuel—God with us—showed up not to over-awe and overwhelm us, but in the most under-awing, under-whelming, easily over-lookable way, in the lowliest station in society, among the most invisible, oppressed and down-trodden people, in one of the poorest, remotest, most neglected and exploited backwater corners of the world, and in a way that invited the most shame, rejection and misunderstanding. That explains today’s choice of bulletin cover. We believe in this kind of Incarnation, said Athansius, precisely because it is such an unbelievable reversal of conventional wisdom, that you can’t make this up. You wouldn’t make this up, not for the usual purposes of religion or politics.
So our spiritual ancestors relished and reveled in the paradox, that the Timeless One who created time consented to be born and have a birthday; that he who is the source of all power has taken on the powerlessness of a baby; that the One who created all things enters creation as a creature; the one to whom belongs all wealth lays among the poorest of the poor, wrapped in rags; the owner of the universe enters the world in homelessness, soon to be an exile and a refugee in the land of his people’s captivity. The list of stunning reversals for Israel’s Lord and Master goes on and on, one surprising reversal leading to another, in Christian worship and thought about the Incarnation. As the hymn, “Let All Together Praise our God” describes it:
“He lays aside His majesty And seems as nothing worth,
And takes on Him a servant’s form, who made the heav’n and earth.”
And he did this, not to prove his power, but to share his power; not to assert his kingship, but to make kings and queens and royalty of even the poorest, weakest and most vile and reviled among us. God descended to share our human nature, so that he might raise us up to share his divine nature. No, not God’s perfection nor his almighty knowledge and power, but simply, his divine love and compassion. As the hymn, “Let All Together Praise Our God” again puts it:
“Behold the wonderful exchange Our Lord with us doth make!
Lo, He assumes our flesh and blood, And we of heav’n partake.”
As surprising a reversal this may be, in another way, it shouldn’t be surprising: after all, the God-who-is-with-us, all throughout Biblical revelation, had always shown himself to be “the God who hears the cry of the poor,” who “dwells with the lowly and the contrite,” who “lifts up the poor and the lowly and deposes the mighty from their thrones.”
More than just a mystery or a paradox, the surprising reversal of power that is the Incarnation of God in Jesus is our cue, our model, our way of being in the world. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you into the world.” Not to overawe and overwhelm the world with power, pomp and pageantry, not to claim kingship and control with gold-encrusted cathedral domes or political parties and alliances, but with humble hands that are open to share, and to receive, whether it be our daily bread, or the nails of persecution.
Maybe that’s why its such a wonderful treat to celebrate each Christmas with a children’s pageant. Who among us better displays the weakness, the vulnerability, the need, dependence and precariousness of the human situation than children? Is it not in the helplessness of infancy that we first glimpse the Power at the heart of the universe in a tangible, visible form? And since Divinity took on our humanity, so that we might share his divinity, what better displays our awkward yet hopeful state, between earth and heaven, than children and babes in bathrobes, portraying grown-up shepherds, angels, wise men, a ruthless king and two bewildered, betrothed parents? Every year I say, Bring them on; its the best show in town. And what a picture of our human condition, in this life, after God took on human flesh, and before we are finally clothed and crowned with his divine nature. Its still taking us a while to catch on. But now, as then, it is an expression of love, and an invitation to love.