Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Now This is How the Birth of Jesus Took Place

“Now this is how the birth of Jesus took place…This is the way, no other way, sorry to disappoint you but it really is as amazingly beautiful and as crazy mixed up as this.” So it is that the Christmas story unfolds each year. “Now this is how the birth of Jesus came about.” And each year those few words sound so promising, almost like, “Once upon a time…” But as the story unfolds, things fall apart, and it’s more like a fractured fairy tale, not at all neat and uncomplicated. There is Mary’s unexplained pregnancy, Joseph’s sense of betrayal and his decision to put her aside, then an angel’s reassurance in a dream; you know the rest of the story so well - an uncomfortable journey for a census, demanded by tax-greedy Romans, not a room to be had, and God’s Son ends us being delivered in a cattle stall; and very soon these three will be refugees fleeing to Egypt. All of it seems a glaring reproach to our pretentions, whatever they may be. But this is how the birth of Jesus God’s only Son took place. And like those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, we may still wonder, “Did it have to be like this?” 

Perhaps all of these circumstances were appropriate because God was doing something so unprecedented in Christ. A sign has been given us from on high; the sign we’ve been longing for. And it is all a sober reminder of who Jesus is, and who he wants to be. For God points to the precarity and brokenness, the mess and inconsistencies and ambiguities of our lives, our smelly flesh and guts and bones and asks quietly, “May I dwell there?” And as the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, so he speaks to us, “Do not be afraid. Instead, go to the low stable of your weakness and you will find me waiting for you there.” You see the Christmas story is after all harsh and terrible, full of struggle, with the shadow of the cross falling over it.[1] Jesus enters our world anonymously, clandestinely, born to insignificant parents from a nowhere town because like a warrior he is slipping in behind enemy lines [2] in order to subvert the way we thought things were supposed to be and so to initiate his kingdom.

We call this the scandal of the Incarnation - that God Most High wants to be God most low, small, hidden, weak, and unremarkable; this is God’s embrace of all that we are in its beauty as well as its shoddiness. Hidden first of all in Mary’s warm womb; he will then live the small-town life of a carpenter and wandering preacher. Later on, he will fall under the weight of the cross, and in the excruciating hour of his death his body will be pierced and torn; all his beauty and divinity smeared and concealed by blood and spittle. But there most of all in the poverty of his passion, our deadly mess will be turned completely inside-out by God’s weakness. The mess is always God’s opportunity; for his power is always made perfect in his weakness. As first in the stable so on the cross, nowhere is God more divine than in his weakness, in his humility and humiliation.[3]

Many of us will remember Br. David West. He was an artist who worked for an advertising department at a big department store in Texas before he entered. David loved to tell the story of the time he was assigned to do a watercolor painting of a single rose for an ad campaign. He had struggled with it all evening; and after his final attempt, he turned the paper over in desperation and discovered there in what had bled through the paper the perfect rose; he added a few touches and that was it. With Mary and Joseph and David, we must trust the upside-downness and continue searching for the Rose – hoping against hope, turning things over, and discovering the beauty of God. Are we adventurous enough?

Mary and Joseph show us that there is no security but faith and loving surrender to God. For his part, God reveals that he cannot be enfleshed without our faith and the cooperation of our weakness. It is what he longs for, delights in, and depends on in order to be with us. And he wants to make new Bethlehems in us,[4] if we will make room for him. But how slow we are to understand that confusion is grace, how reluctant to trust that God wants to turn things over and show us beautiful opportunities for his grace in the messiness. If we await neatness or easy success and fanfare, we will always be disappointed. This is how the birth of Jesus comes about: God places a child in our midst and says, “Here I am - in the smallness of your reality.” And maybe it is like an apology after all.

Everything’s not OK. It’s much better than that: everything is falling apart around us, within us. But this is great, good news, for in Christ we have been grasped by the love of God and drawn irrevocably into the fullness of his desire for us. For God has at last heeded the lonely cry of his creatures, “Please surrender yourself! Lower the heavens. Come down to us.” And he begs for our surrender to him in return, even as he astounds us, perhaps even disappoints us, with his unpretentiousness and weakness. A Rose has blossomed from Mary’s tender stem. And from this altar we receive his self-surrender to us in a scrap of bread, rose-red with his precious blood.

Piermatteo d'Amelia (about 1450 - 1508), The Annunciation, about 148, tempera on panel, 102.4 x 114.8 cm. Gardiner Museum.
[1] See Raymond Brown.
[2] CS Lewis cited by Robert Barron in The Priority of Christ.
[3] See Jorgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pp. 176-177.
[4] See Gerard Manley Hopkins.