In the name of the one, holy and undivided trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
He was born in a small backward province of a mighty empire, a refugee in his own land. His family was forced to be on the move because government bureaucrats decreed it. He came not from wealth and status, but from the ranks of the countless poor. No one wanted to welcome his family. He had to be born in a temporary shelter. But I could be talking about any number of refugee children we see regularly on our TV screens every night. Children have always been the forgotten victims of history’s whims. He, of course, is God. He is Jesus, God among us. And this is precisely how God chose to be born: the lowest of the low, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the neediest of the needy. God among us; God in our flesh; God as one of us.
We have just heard that beautiful and touching story from Luke recounting the birth narrative. It no doubt made us feel good and perhaps also a bit nostalgic, as well it should. But do we gloss too easily over the deeper truth that it contains, caught up as we are in images of Christmas cribs and star-struck shepherds? What does it really mean when we say that God took on our flesh? What does it say about us, and about God, that God found us worthy enough to become and live as one of us?
A 19th-century Anglican bishop can perhaps help shed some light on these questions for us. His name was Charles Gore, and he was Bishop of Oxford. Here is what he says about the Incarnation, the fact that God assumed our human flesh. “The divine Son, in becoming man must, we conclude, have accepted, voluntarily and deliberately, the limitations involved in really living as a man (…) in feeling as a man, thinking as a man, striving as a man, being anxious and tired as a man. (…) The real Incarnation involves a real self-impoverishment, a real self-emptying, a real self-limitation on the part of the eternal Word of God.” In other words, this was not some magic trick on the part of God, some make-believe story designed to feed the gullible. In becoming human in Jesus, God went all the way. This was not God in a half-human form, or having only the appearance of a body. This was a God who fully inhabited our human flesh in the exact same way we live and move in our own bodies everyday: aware of its limitations and its glories, and deeply grateful for the joys, wonders and mixed blessings those bodies bring to us.
The Incarnation is, at its heart, about selfless love. In God taking on human flesh, we were shown that God loves us passionately. We were also shown—and this, sadly, we too often forget—that our human bodies are good things: that they are wonderful, and delightful, and meant to bring us closer to God. So there are no good or bad bodies, no perfect or imperfect bodies, and certainly no moral or immoral bodies. How could there be after God became one of us and lived in a body like ours? When we look at baby Jesus in the crib, what do we see? Do we see some cute, smiling, infant-sized God? Perhaps we shouldn’t; perhaps that’s the wrong way to understand what’s happening. Perhaps we should see a crying and hungry child, who probably needs to be changed. Perhaps it is only in and through those very human traits that we can get a glimpse of God. God entered smack in the middle of the muck and contradictions and limitations of our human lives, and that is where God chose to live. Yes, this is where God’s real home is: with us and among us, and inhabiting a body like ours. It takes a great deal of humility and selflessness on the part of God to do something like that. God didn’t have to, but God did. God did because we and our bodies are good and holy in God’s eyes. I am reminded of Saint Francis of Assisi who, legend has it, was the first to create a Christmas crèche out of living characters. Francis possessed a deeply incarnational theology; he believed that all matter is shot through with a divine spark. The living nativity scene was, for him, a way of reclaiming and reaffirming the beauty and wonder of God being born in fallible—yet how so very splendid—human flesh.
When I was a young child, one of my great joys at Christmas time was to take care of the family crèche. I would ask for some of the figurines as birthday or Christmas gifts. I would set up the crèche, move it and the figurines about: trying to make a living tableau out of what was essentially a static mass of objects. But those objects were certainly not static in my imagination. This was undoubtedly play for me, but play with a deeper meaning, as are all forms of play. I was no Francis by any stretch of the imagination, yet I think my inspiration was perhaps a bit similar to his. I did not just see lifeless statuettes. I saw a living story which continued to unfold. I saw a God who was still making wonderful things possible, who believed in us so much that our flesh became transformed through the divine touch, and who was being re-born, as it were, in our very midst every day. These are surely heavy theological reflections for a small child to have had, but my play with the crèche, I would think, was like a childlike form of prayer, like a holy story on the move.
You see, I think there’s a problem with always saying that Christmas is only meant for the children. I think it minimizes and distorts the real truth and beauty of Christmas, as though it were only a fantasy, a make-believe sort of thing that only small children would believe in anyway: that the whole thing is nothing more than a lovely tale of baby Jesus, adoring shepherds and sweet angels singing songs in the sky. It is partly that, of course, and, yes, it is wonderful to see children caught up in the magic and spectacle of Christmas. But we all know that Christmas is far more than gifts and cookies, just as Easter is far more than chocolate bunny rabbits and jelly beans. Christmas is a time to ponder some great truths: that God chose us to live among; that this was a gift given freely to us; that this means we are blessed and graced as creatures of flesh and blood. Some of the earliest Church thinkers believed that if God became human, then surely humans can strive for some sort of sharing in God’s divine nature. Not that we become gods, but our human nature can be divinized, better reflective of the goodness that God is. So when we look at the nativity scene, in this church or elsewhere, let us put ourselves in the place of the infant Jesus, and ask ourselves if we are in the process of becoming more like him, who became more like us.
There is a rather strange line in the gospel story from Luke. In speaking to the shepherds, the angel says these words: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” What sign? This is not a sign from heaven. A sign from heaven should be spectacular and frightening and definitely recognizable. Instead, there’s a kid in diapers lying in a crib. This is meant to be a sign of the Messiah, the Lord? Precisely. That’s the whole point of the story. God came among us as one of us. The sign here was some ordinary-looking baby. The shepherds had to learn to see with different eyes. They had to go—not beyond the appearances, for that would be too easy—but with and through the appearances. For the appearances are not simply accidental here. They are of the very essence of what the Incarnation means, and thus of what Christmas means. God did not fake it. God did not make believe. God did not just try and be like us, just for fun, to see what it was like, to see how the other half lives. God took it all very seriously. God dove right in and was born like us, lived like us, cried like us, laughed like us, and died like us. Doesn’t that say something astonishing about us?