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.”
Father Bill Burk†