Last night I talked about a cartoon that really bugs me. This morning I’m thinking about a meme that makes me laugh every time. It recalls a moment in the gospel when Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Except this time, he’s asking the theologians, “Who do you say that I am?” And the theologians reply: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.” And Jesus said, “…What?"
I realize that may only be funny if you spend a lot of time reading theology books. But I’m thinking about this meme, because the authors of our readings today do not do what we often do when it comes to things theological, like the incarnation and all that it means for us and for this world.
It’s not that John and the author of Hebrews don’t make some pretty grand and complicated claims. They do, of course. John begins with the cosmic poem: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. And then he goes on about light and life. But almost immediately we’re down on the ground with John the Baptist. It’s quite jarring, actually, moving from transcendence to imminence with barely a breath. From the soaring heights of the heavens, we land in the dust on by the Jordan River with the wild-eyed, camel-skin-clothed prophet—and there’s no mistaking that what John the Evangelist is on about is not going to stay just heavenly.
And then, even more jarring—scandalous, even—we find out that all this talk about the eternal and universal Word through whom all things are made, about light and life and spiritual rebirth, is all in the service of this one line: The Word became flesh and lived among us. Everything aims at that. That’s the point. What was unfathomable, ineffable, immeasurable and incomprehensible, became flesh, became one of us: close enough to be held; close enough to hold us.
John’s poetic take on the Christmas story isn't like the more familiar ones, and it would be easy to dismiss it as quirky poetry, except he’s not the only one saying such surprising things. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews follows suit. He begins by reminding us that God has always been in communication with this world. The Word that was with God and was God has been on the move since forever, creating and calling, convicting and comforting. God has always spoken in many and various ways.
But in these last days, which includes today, God has spoken to us by a Son. Again: the Word became flesh.
And there’s a danger that we church folks have become so used to this idea that we don’t pay it much attention anymore. But it’s a staggering witness we’re hearing. If it’s true, it really does change everything. It means that the distance between heaven and earth is shrunk to the size of a newborn. It means that the unseen God has a face, fingers and feet. It means that we are no longer left to grasp at vague spiritual realities, looking anxiously to the heavens. Instead we creep with the shepherds to the edge of the manger and hear the word that made us in the coos of this baby; we see the deepest longings of our hearts in his face. Somehow, this child is “the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being.” It’s breathtaking.
It means, most importantly, that God’s orientation is towards us. It’s the reason we can say something as outlandish as “God so loves the world.” We’re almost bored by the claim, it’s so familiar. But the sociologist, Rodney Stark, insists that it’s just about the most outrageous and revolutionary thing that could have been said in the first-century Roman Empire, when the writers of today’s texts were doing their thing. “God so loves the world” would have been incomprehensible. In the ancient pagan world, the gods, as they were understood, did not love the world—they used the world. And they were not worshipped for their virtue or character, but ceremoniously placated for the sake of personal gain and provision (Steve Bell, Christmas).
And to be honest, the pagan vision makes sense. How can the divine have to do with the profane? How can heaven and earth mingle as lovers? How can the incorruptible take on corruptibility? It’s our claim that’s ridiculous. And it’s only in the company of Jesus that we can make it. It’s only in his light—the light that will never be quenched—that we can know with our whole selves that we are divinely loved, cherished, delighted in, and that God is going to love this world, even if it kills him, right to the end and then through it.
And this morning, and every other morning after, I want to remember that all this—what we sang last night, what we’ve come again to see today—is not just about what God has done. It’s first about God, but not just about God. It’s about us, too. It’s God’s once and for all insistence that we, in our lives, in these bodies, are made, like Mary and Joseph, to be in cahoots with God. We are sufficient, as we are, to both receive and birth God’s love into the world. It’s what we’re meant for.
One of the ancient church fathers (Athanasius) made a claim every bit as outlandish as anything we’ve said about the incarnation: that Christ became like us so that we could become like him. He took on our form, so that we could bear his. You are made to bear the grace and glory, the beauty and love of the One who made the heavens and the earth. We are perfectly made to hold the hope of heaven for this world.
I think that takes a lifetime to sort out. I don’t think there’s a prescription for how we do it. But we might just begin by pausing to consider the child, to see how far God will go to be with us and for us; see the One who will not grasp at the glory that is rightly his, but has given everything for us, and then gladly give ourselves in return. Look at the child and know that the old hymn is right: were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.