Birth is exactly the right setting for the Incarnation
The Mess, and God in It with Us
Birth is exactly the right setting for the Incarnation.
But not in the terms we incline to in this season.
Incarnation refers to God becoming human flesh (carne?) in Jesus. That's the "reason for the season." God doesn't wait for us to go to him/her. He comes to us. Talk about second miles! Of course, there's a necessity about the journey from heaven to earth. Because we are in a hell of a mess. From the beginning. The lies of Eden, the fratricide a little later on, the long history of the race which, even in the books we have our children study, it's mostly about war, one tribe then another bloodying and lording it over everyone else. That's the short summary of the history of the world. And we seem to be proud of it. An emblem of which (the pride in the hell we make) shines in the inside of the Irish hat I wear in winter. There you will find the emblems of the counties of the emerald isle, including the blood red hand of Ulster... my forbears.
Who will show us a better way to live with each other?
That is, we need a savior. And as my Lutheran colleague, Steve Cordes, famously reasoned (on another issue) why would we need a savior if everything was OK?
Which is who, a savior, heaven sends us at Bethlehem in a birth by Mary.
The artistic renditions of that birth, many of which will be reviewed again this season, alternate between bucolic serenity and stately majesty. On the one hand are the stables filled with placid animals and adoring parents in the gentle glow of an eastern star. On the other are the faux palaces with opulent kings and a prayerful crowd surrounding a baby wrapped not in rags but in ermine befitting the monarchial grandeur the prince of heaven deserves.
Either way the point of the incarnation is missed. That it begins with a birth, which, however wonderful, is a messy thing.
Understand, please, that I am of an age that was pre-Lamaze. I never attended, nor was expected to, any class on coaching the mother of a soon-to-be-born child on how to breathe during contractions. I wasn't there with Barbara when our daughters each in turn emerged from the womb. I was spared, therefore, the effusion of blood and water which attends births.
Which, I assume - and I think I assume without fear of contradiction, except from the most fanatically heretical who may believe Jesus really arrived in Bethlehem some other more seemly way - attended Jesus' birth... blood and water, which, I note, is also the way he departed at Calvary.
A mess, out of which something not just beautiful, but eternally redemptive, emerged.
It is into our mess that the savior is plunged. I could recite for you chapter and verse, but you are well-qualified (I certainly hope) to cite the occasions in Jesus' earthly life in which he faced up close and personally our mess, nowhere more vividly than when nailed to a cross by a conspiracy of hatred, indifference, expediency, betrayal, and ignorance.
Sometimes the carols of this season get it right. Despite Jesus being called "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a song I sung with the First Methodist Junior choir on WSTC in 1940, the lyrics sing to the savior: "The world treats you mean, Treats me mean too, But that's how things and done down here, We didn't know it was You." Behind which lyric is the shadow of a terrible human mess named slavery. Mostly the Christmas songs give only brief glances at the predicament which needs a savior, with phrases about a "weary world," "thorns infest[ing] the ground," and a king's gift of burial ointment for Bethlehem's prince. But in the proliferation of properly ecstatic "Alleluias" a songwriter may be excused for not dwelling on the negative.
Of which is what you may fairly accuse me: losing sight of the savior's consequences for us and the mess we are in. Fair enough. My intent here is simply to insist that the incarnation, incredibly graceful as it is, everlastingly beautiful for you and me and everyone else, the hinge of human history on which swings the redemption of the race, an intervention in human affairs that deserves all the adoration and exultation it receives plus a lot more, the event to which we return again and again (and should) like thirsty travelers to a refreshing spring... this God who intervenes comes to our messy world to make it right, unflinching in his involvement, scarred finally in hands and feet for the trying, and, I believe with all my heart, if with a wistful sigh, triumphant at last.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.