O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all they years are met in thee tonight.
We have sung the carols a thousand times, watched the pageant over and over, packed and unpacked the creche so often that the shocking story of the Incarnation has become tame. The vision that God is born from a human mother, that heaven and earth meet in a baby wet from delivery, ought to find us hiding under the sofa rather than basking in any sentimental glow. Sound the alarm! Hit the decks! The God of the universe is wearing swaddling clothes and is asking us to hold him in our arms. Yikes! “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the gospel of John describes this news, a notion that more than a few have called undignified, unsophisticated, and un-theological! But according to Christianity, it is the way things are.
Writer and former boys school chaplain Frederic Buechner writes, “All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth bound are themselves denied (by this revelation). Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy, (but) incarnation means that all ground is holy, because God not only made it, but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here” within the dusty mess of the world and our lives.
The stories of Advent and Christmas present a vision that touches something quite deep and universal—of hope fulfilled, of peace achieved, of light that shines through overwhelming dark—but their gifts are more than emotional. They are mythic and politically charged, conveying truth that speaks directly to our current wilderness. Consider their historical context: the kingdom of God in the form of a Jewish peasant born in a marginal backwater is lined up against the imperial kingdom of Rome. And this poor brown man (and his mother Mary) offer a liberating way that continues to save us today, across the centuries, if we have ears to hear it.
Convention said the Roman puppet Herod was the “king of the Jews.” Caesar Augustus was called “son of God.” His successor Octavian, who ruled at the moment of Jesus’ birth, had the moniker “one who is divine.” Apollo was understood as the “light of the world.” So a story which appropriates all of these titles to Mary’s son, who was poor himself and gave voice to his humble following, redefined power then and now.
A vision of this social transformation from around the time of Jesus goes like this: “The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls and fences… Lives will be in common and wealth will have no more division… There will be no poor man there, no rich or tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings. No leaders. All will be on par together.” (Syballine Oracles 2:319-24) But how does this new day begin its dawning? The transformation began in the humility of the manger, but it has always depended on human beings to carry it out: God with us, God for us, God acting through us. Some current opportunities? Living wage jobs, affordable housing and health care, integrated neighborhoods and fair access to capital, equitable public schools, affordable daycare, a justice system committed to rehabilitation more than punishment. O come, o come Emmanuel in our hands and minds and hearts, in our systems and in our organizing… Now!
Fully understood, the Incarnation means that we bring heaven to earth.