When Word invested in flesh,
No matter the shrouds that swathed it
Merry Christmas, Creator family! For, as the Body we are well aware that Christmas is a season, not a single day. We will go right on rejoicing, celebrating, cherishing the miracle and reality of Emmanuel in our lives—to Epiphany and beyond. Harder to do this year, no doubt, with all of the restrictions, worry, dangers to health, loss, separation and hardship, but no less a miracle and a reality. Perhaps that’s the reason to focus on the single “moment” of Christmas, the single day, minute, hour when the God of Creation and eternity entered time. For it is a moment too awesome to imagine, really. In the Christmas Day service, I spoke about a Nativity Icon, the one shown below, and have been meditating and reflecting on its beauty and significance throughout this holiday week. I pointed to the beauty of image and color as a reflection of the passages of Scripture we heard during the Christmas Eve service. There is so much in this icon to see and to reflect on, still more that I was not able to talk about that day.
Study it a bit further with me, for that is what icons are intended to be: holy art, that deepens and enriches the more you behold and meditate upon the image. Here, below, an icon entitled “The Nativity Of Our Lord.” You will see the baby Jesus at the center, wrapped in “swaddling cloths” (Luke 2:12). The swaddling clothes are a traditional and current practice, which has been proven to help the baby transition from womb to world. At a deeper level, we see the “bands” of cloths and think ahead to a time when Jesus will be wrapped again, bound to this earth and entombed for all time. This imagery of binding and death is not only a profound and poignant foreshadowing of what is to come, but also the present condition of God the Word in the incarnation.
The counterpart and reason behind this beautiful icon is the scripture we have heard proclaimed and sung through this week: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:1)—God becoming human, is the incredible action of the infinite becoming finite, the Divine becoming mortal, the life becoming death. From the moment that Divine Word took on mortal flesh, the unbelievable was put in motion—God would die. Roger Whittaker, in his song The First Hello, sings, “They say the moment that you’re born is when you start to die, and the first time we said hello began our last goodbye,” as a lyrical adaptation of an ancient sentiment pondered by great thinkers throughout the ages. It is this immutable truth that was at the root of the rejection of Jesus by the Sadducees and Temple Priests and is a “stumbling block” even today.
Why would the immortal God become flesh and die? There are those that still say this can’t happen, and it can’t—or rather, it wouldn’t happen if there were another way to redeem our nature, reconcile all Creation and save us from death. To quote from another singer I admire, Michael Card, “Why did they nail him to the Cross? His love would have held him there….” God knew that death itself, as a permanent state of being, must be changed into a state of transition from one form of life to another. Only God’s self could initiate that change and create new life out death.
Elton Higgs’ third poem in his trilogy of poems, Christ in You the Hope of Glory, rightly and beautifully shares the depth of the iconic image of swaddling life!
"And the Word Became Flesh" (John 1:1)
When Word invested in flesh,
No matter the shrouds that swathed it;
The donning of sin's poor corpse
Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.
Yet breath of God
Broke through the shroud,
Dispersed the cloud
That darkened every birth before.
Those swaddling bands bespoke
A glory in the grave,
When flesh emerged as Word.
Take up this flesh, O Lord:
Re-form it with Your breath,
That, clothed in wordless death,
It may be Your Word restored.
Embrace the miracle and the reality of Christmas, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ll leave you with a few more thoughts on the Incarnation until we meet again to celebrate his inextinguishable light at the Epiphany:
“The resurrection of Christ is one of the foundation-stones of Christianity. It was the seal of the great work that He came on earth to do. It was the crowning proof that the ransom He paid for sinners was accepted, the atonement for sin accomplished, the head of him who had the power of death bruised, and the victory won.”
“After death something new begins, over which all powers of the world of death have no more might.”
In the world of religious iconography, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus is well represented. Of the many and varied iconographic representations, there is a common difference in portraying two perspectives of the human condition which stand out—either Blessed Joseph is with Mary at the cradle, or he is to the side, alone or speaking with an old man.
Icons are considered an essential part of church tradition and are given special liturgical veneration. They serve as mediums of instruction for the faithful by depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament in much the same way as a child’s picture book. While at first this may sound scandalous—to be compared to a child in need of pictures to explain things, but it is Jesus himself who told us that we must come to him as children, for that is what we are.
The icons depict church feasts, biblical persons, and sacred events. In the classical Byzantine and Orthodox tradition, iconography is not a realistic but a symbolical art, and its function is to express, through line and color, both the physical and the theological teaching of the church.
The icons of the Nativity call us to “ponder in our heart” what this Nativity might mean, and specifically, how we will live with it. Joseph is either depicted in blessing, bathed in divine light at the side of Mary and the Lord, or in conflict—the ‘old man’ who speaks to him is Satan.
How do you feel when you ponder these images? Where does the celebration of Christmas take you? You are not alone in this blessed time, and your heart and spirit, in blessed repose or isolation and conflict, are not separated from the Child who longs to be held.
We will always have our cross to bear, our burden to carry, but we also have our Savior who intercedes for us and takes our pain upon Himself. The Cradle and the Cross are one and the same; the arms of the baby reaching up are the are arms of the cross reaching down.
You are so loved and important and special—child of God.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! …let us love one another, for love comes from God… Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed." 1 John 3, 4; Isaiah 54
“Our present life is lived between advents…We live between hiddenness and revelation.” -Walter Brueggemann
In a very literal sense, we live our lives in between advents—the first Advent is the incarnation and the second Advent, the Parousia—the Return of the King. Yet there is a third, less physical “Advent” we encounter when we embrace the other two spiritual realities as the bookends of our lives. It is in this “in-between Advent” which we find the answers to the everyday issues of life in living, coping, relating, learning, growing, and deepening our faith and our person into the one God created.
Surely, we have been living through a time of searching for hope in the midst of confusion and fear. This time of yearning for God’s intervention and anticipating His fresh beginnings focuses now on the Manger and the glorious white of Christmas. But it is not to what lies ahead that we must look, but to the now. Our preparation for the coming of Christ, as we prepare our hearts and minds for a season of joy and restoration, finds its motivation, and hope within the presence of Christ already manifest in us. As St. Paul proclaims to us in I Corinthians 1:7, "Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them.” Those who know this struggle and seek the peace of God through faith know the splendor of the moment in the present moment because the peace they seek is made available through the ‘present’ Advent—the showing forth of Christ in their lives now.
We decorate our homes and our Church, we play beautiful songs and hymnody, we wear blue, and red and green in anticipation of the glorious white to come. What a gift and blessing to know that our desire and our efforts to know Jesus in a new and wonderful Way are in fact being brought to fruition along the Way! Our life-long “third Advent,” is the amazing showing forth of Christ in our lives every day, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are led to the manger.
For me, Advent is one big paradox. For many (especially the children I live with), Advent “preparation” means accumulation—more shopping, more outings, more calories, more excitement and seasonal stimulation. And the culture woos us with extravagance—even bigger savings, giving your home that extra sparkle, a nice fat Christmas tree groaning with tinsel and gifts, all the while telling us—go figure—to simplify our lives. In the Christian community, of course, we shun such over-commercialization and tell ourselves that we are after an "extravagance" of meaning. Or a wealth of happy times. We are, above all, supposed to be happier this time of year than any other.
But, I’m thinking that childbirth in straw surrounded by barn animals was not happy. Nor was it simple. And I find it helpful, at least for all us "Marthas" out there (sorry, our Martha!), to remember Christ’s annoying tendency to relocate. In our hurried, harried, holiday state to produce less or buy more or make it all mean something to our children, remember that the places we expect our heavenly king to show up are not the places he turns up. The places we prepare are not necessarily the places he will come. The glitter in that tree may not be the glory of the Father. I do not believe he tops our efforts with the satisfaction and affirmation our lonely souls so desire. I believe Christ comes in weakness to weakness, in crisis to crisis, into emptiness and loss—and so, crazy as it sounds, this is where we must go to find him. In your most broken places, in your most depraved moments, be they daily or even every hour (and oh, how we need thee!)— this is where the Lord of love incarnates. This place--too broken, too lonely, too lost, too messed up for Facebook. Go to the Bethlehem that doesn’t glow like the one on Christmas cards and there you will find him.
A child in my Sunday School class once captured the pain and the redemption intertwined in Christmas when he drew our darling baby Jesus, wrapped in the storybook swaddling—and pinned to a Cross. How much that simple stick figure said! The Easter church has an iconographic image, too, of Christ the newborn king, swaddled in his own shroud and standing in a tomb. Theologically speaking, the hard wood of the cross began its life as a manger. Remember St. Paul’s terminology – the whole Creation “groaning” as in childbirth. It is okay to be sad at Christmas. It is okay to feel failure and loss more sharply, to anger more readily or be only arms' length from despair. To be gravely and desperately aware that life is not now how it should be. Because Christmas puts the most perfect love into the crummiest vessels–human hearts and relationships not fit for a king--and we know it. Our spirits know it. And we are ashamed. Again! That's why the song says "fall on your knees." It is not so much the majesty that does me in as the forgiveness-- every time.
Have we nothing we can give, grab at the last minute and pop into a gift bag? Nothing worthy? Nothing. It's a killer, for those of us who like to be in control of the perfect gift and the Kairos of holidays--right meal at the right time wearing the right outfit with meaning and happy memories oozing from the crust and filling the room with that "I called this one right" aroma. But that is not our Lord's table. He went to the Cross to share his flesh and blood with us. Or is it the other way around--he came in flesh and blood so that it would one day be shared? We are called to give the only thing worthy of this infant king--worthy because he has already claimed it, he's already unwrapped the present for heaven's sake and he loves it all the more--and in your surrender of that gift lies the holiest of all moments of Christmas.
Come, let us adore him.
Father Bill Burk†