“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the prologue to the Gospel according to John, and it as close to a nativity story as John has to offer. Within the prologue itself we’re introduced to John the Baptist, and before the first chapter is completed the adult Jesus has emerged. John feels no need to rehearse the infancy stories, as his is the last of the four gospels to be written and that territory is well covered by Matthew and Luke. No, John wants to go deeper, and to speak of the Christ as having always been. “In the beginning,” he proclaims. From the very beginning of all things the Word, the Logos, the Christ is.
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Do you see what that means? John is clear that Christ is not an afterthought, not a remedy to respond to the brokenness of humanity. One of the great Medieval theological debates asked the question, “had humanity not fallen would there have been an Incarnation?” The school following Thomas Aquinas tended to think not, but that of John Duns Scotus—John the Scot—contended that it had been God’s intention all along to become one of us. The seeds of that idea are here in this prologue to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” I like the way Eugene Peterson rather earthily renders this in his free translation, The Message:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
What is particularly remarkable, though, is that this move into the neighborhood was not a grand entrance by some sort of a fully-grown, fully-realized super man, but as a baby. Vulnerable and fragile, God incarnate was as utterly dependant on the love and care of his parents as is any other human baby. Did he spit up after being nursed, get a fussy stomach, and keep Mary up in the night when he was cutting his first teeth? You bet. As a boy did he skin his knees and twist his ankle when he was out playing with his friends? Get splinters and cut his finger when he was trying to help Joseph with his woodwork? You can count on it. Because he was one of us—flesh and blood, living in the neighborhood. In some of the later and apocryphal Gnostic gospels, the child Jesus is portrayed as doing things like forming birds out of clay and then making them come alive or stretching a beam of wood to help Joseph build a bed. To such tales all four of the canonical gospel writers would say “what a crock”… or some 1st century equivalent.
No, at the heart of the Christmas celebration sits the proclamation that God has become human, in all of its complexity and all of its simplicity. Joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, skinned knees soothed by a mother’s touch and a kiss on the forehead. That’s the point.
But the point then cuts deeper. Over Advent and now into Christmas I’ve been using a little book of daily readings by Ronald Rolheiser. Funny, I purchased as many of the ones based in the work of Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis as I could, but over the two weeks we had them here they just flew off the book table… and I didn’t even have one for myself. I dug around in a box of other book table stock, and found one left over from last year; the one by Rolheiser. He’s a Canadian, a Catholic priest, a member of the Oblate order, and much respected as a writer on Christian spirituality. I’d read some of his other work and always liked it, so I imagined that a leftover book from last year would suffice.
It more than sufficed. Next year I’m going to see about tracking down a bundle of these, because it is so very, very fine. Challenging and even a bit unsettling in Advent, which is good. Then Rolheiser hits Christmas, and it becomes as rich and lovely as a Christmas feast. The reading for Christmas day was particularly powerful, because he picks up on the deep meaning of the Incarnation. Listen.
After the birth of Christ, we need not look to the extraordinary, the spectacular or the miraculous to find God. God is now found where we live—in our kitchens, at our tables, in our wounds, and in each other’s faces.
Did you hear that series of places Rolheiser lists as being where we live? In our kitchens, at our tables, in our wounds, and in each other’s faces. What he is saying is that because of the Incarnation—because of God becoming human and moving into the neighborhood, skinned knees and all—nothing ordinary is just ordinary any more. It has all been blessed, it has all become a sacrament—a visible and outward sign of grace—because God has indwelt it. The seeds of this are there in the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, beginning with that statement in the first chapter of Genesis that says humans are made in the very image of God. Yet is comes so very much to fruition in the birth and life of Jesus, and in his death as well. Rolheiser points out that there is no physical description of Jesus in the gospels, which probably means he was real quite ordinary in looks. And then he adds that, “Even after the resurrection, he is mistaken for a gardener [by Mary Magdalene in the garden], a cook [when he grills fish on the beach], a traveler [on the road to Emmaus].” There’s something in that, isn’t there. God as one of us is, well, one of us.
“We pray for visions,” Rolheiser writes, “but seldom watch a sunset. We marvel at the gift of tongues, but are bored listening to babies. We look for Christ everywhere, except in the place where the incarnation took place: our flesh.” And isn’t that often so very true?
“Love is a thing that happens in ordinary places,” he continues—“in kitchens”—and I like his reference to kitchens, because it so resonates with Kilian McDonnell’s poem on the Annunciation which imagines Gabriel speaking to young Mary as she stoops to mop up a spill on the kitchen floor—“Love is a thing that happens in ordinary places—in kitchens, at tables, in bedrooms, in workplaces, in families, in the flesh. God abides in us when we abide there. Through the Incarnation, God crawls into ordinary life and invites us to meet him there.”
And isn’t that something we need to hear in our oftentimes overly complicated, technology and success driven society? In a world that sometimes threatens to spring apart? That “through the Incarnation, God crawls—crawls—into ordinary life and invites us to meet him there.”
Take this as your resolution for the New Year; to commit to seeing the presence of the living God in the ordinary of your own life. In your kitchen, at your tables, in your wounds, and in the faces of the people you meet, day by day by day. Don’t let the joys of Christmas fade too, too quickly, in other words. In this nativity light, see about seeing differently.