The Feast of the Incarnation

Nativity set from Haiti

Once again we come to Bethlehem, that land which, in the Christmas story at least, seems to stand outside of time and place.  As soon as we hear the words from Luke - “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ... and Joseph went with Mary, who was great with child” we are transported into another (almost magical) world where there are sheep-dotted fields tended by simple shepherd boys, where it's not unusual for the night skies to open suddenly, and streams of angels to surround placid sheep with glorious music.  Where friendly beasts gather around a sweet baby who has been laid in their trough by a lovely teenaged mother while more angels hover nearby, gazing upon the scene with serene satisfaction.

We've heard this Christmas story enough times to burnish and gild it, so that we forget that sheep are smelly, that shepherds were despised, that unwed teenage mothers do not find having babies out in the animal quarters to be romantic, that God Almighty coming to live among us as a helpless infant is preposterous. 
We forget that Caesar Augustus was also known as a Prince of Peace because of his Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, enforced by installing legions of troops in every province of the Empire.  Augustus was considered a god, the savior of the people, and it is against the backdrop of Empire, of the great socio-political and economic system overseen by the mighty Caesar Augustus that this Christmas story takes place.  

All the world was busily engaged in commerce and politics and cultural activities, while outside in a barn, the true prince of peace is born, the true savior comes, and no one takes any notice, except for some rough shepherds, the Imperial equivalent of migrant workers.  

So there is this tension within us.  We want and love the wondrous story and its once-upon-a-time quality:  the beautiful mother, the still night sky full of heavenly music, the sheep-dotted countryside.  

And yet the power of the story is intensified through the stark contrast of this birth and this life and this peace and this savior over against the life and rule of the warrior emperor Caesar Augustus, creator of the Pax Romana but NOT the creator of the stars of night.  

Still, if we stay with the otherworldly aspect of the story, if we limit Christmas either to an event occurring in a corner of the real but now ancient historical Roman Empire or to once-upon-a-time-in-Bethlehem, the land of dreamy angels and friendly cows, we miss out on Incarnation.  

Which is what we say Christmas IS in the Church - the feast of the Incarnation.  The nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is not just about his birth but about how and why God chose to come and live among us and what that means to us and for us now.

Of course, we say every week that we know what this is about.  We recite in the Creed:  
For us and for our salvation, Jesus came down from Heaven.  By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.  

Mountains of words have been written to explore and explain the incarnation.  And yet sometimes the way we best understand something so awesome and complex as God and God's ways is to approach the subject by way of stories.  

The incarnation is at its heart a story.  A story with skin on it, the story of a person sent from God 
who shows us what God is like; the story of the man from heaven who became human so that we might become divine.

And through story, through this particular story, we come to understand through something other than reason or logic.  Through this story we understand that busy empires are not concerned with teenaged mothers who give birth in back alleys nor with their babies and their care.  That busy empires do not have the time or inclination to receive the songs of angels, much less notice God's appearance.  

We understand that God chose to come among us as a helpless infant born in irregular circumstances and resting in a feeding trough instead of as a powerful emperor resting on a throne.  And that the good news of his coming was announced to the poor, not to the powerful, and that the real prince of peace does not deploy troops or issue decrees that demonize or marginalize the non-powerful. 

We understand that the story of God is not just something that happens in an alternate universe but in real people's lives every day.  We may live under the rules of whatever Empire we are born into but those rules are not the ones under which God prefers to operate.

Incarnation is God's story with skin on it, having to do with not only the life of Jesus, God made man, but also the lives of all humans.  It means that God cares for those whom the world pushes aside.  It means that there is a connection between heaven and earth, between mystery and not just the ordinary but the grubby earthy realities of human existence.  

That connection is in the person of Jesus, who stands between heaven and earth, as the one who lifts us from the mire of our brokenness and brings all of humanity into the realm of dancing stars and singing angels into the very heart of God our creator.  And so we find ourselves looking into the manger and finding not just a baby, but a pathway into the mystery itself.  

But let us not forget the grubby earthy part, for this is where our own skin comes into the story.  We are not simply recipients of this bounteous grace but also charged to be God's hands who lift others out of the mire.  

This story of a vulnerable baby born to a powerless mother on the edge of society challenges us to see Christ in all vulnerable, powerless, marginalized people.  And not only to make that connection in our imaginations but to put our hands to work for their good, for their dignity and well-being.  The story of the incarnation is supposed to teach us to care, not only for Baby Jesus and his beautiful mother, but for all those for whom Jesus came.

Children have a great avenue into the Christmas story through the venerable tradition of the Christmas pageant.  They literally inhabit the story, they put on costumes and play out the parts.  They learn the story from the inside out, with their own bodies, another way of thinking about incarnation. They learn by playing all the parts and imagining themselves to be their characters. By putting themselves in the shoes of others, they just step into the mystery. 

After every children's pageant I see a few come away with shining eyes and I know that they were living in the story and not simply playing at it.  Their inching toward the baby in their animal suits, their standing in awe beside a tinsel-haired angel took them into that other world and gave them their own stories to bring back and to tell, about the time they held their breath as a baby was brought to the arms of a very young girl waiting at the altar.

Luke's Christmas story is a beautiful story, and we can either leave it at that or we can find a way to put skin on it and live into it, to embrace both the angel wings and the earthy grubbiness.  To know that not only did God come to humanity in the person of Jesus in Bethlehem, but that God comes to us again and again in this world and in this life.  

And that it is our calling to put flesh on God's love for all humanity through our caring for God's people ourselves, not in the ways of Caesar and Empire, but in the ways of the God.  To care for them as if they were that vulnerable mother and helpless infant lying in an animal's trough, surrounded by glorious angel song.


Anonymous said…
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Jay Croft said…
I very much doubt that the church where Penelope serves has 1.9 million members.

Hey, I've been in Williamsburg more than once and no, the entire population of that town is well below that figure.
That one was a spammer, Jay. Have had a spate of them lately that got through Blogger's usually good spam filter.