My friend and fellow pastor Ben White re-wrote this carol to explore the mystery of the incarnation. I love the honesty in his version that highlights the wonder of a Creator who would endure the trauma of human birth in order to be with us and for us.
Right here in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lays down his bruised head;
No longer in safety, his body is bare; the birthing is over, he breathes his own air.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but this little baby, he isn’t a fake;
He cries from the cold and the sound of the cows; He cried on his birthday, he cries with me now.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay. But you’re just a baby; it’s not yet your day;
Rest now with your mother for soon you’ll be scarred. Be loved to be lover, be now who you are.
I have experienced the incarnation of God this Advent in some usual and unusual ways. My husband lost his job right as Advent began, and so our family has enjoyed the gift of a lot more time together. We’ve felt the peace and joy of that togetherness in the midst of uncertainty. Circle of Hope has been growing and exploring some new openings in our discernment process for 2015. We’re experiencing the emotions of change and the love for the church and its mission among our people. Some of our people have been activated for justice here in Philly by the events in Ferguson; they’ve been demonstrating forgiveness, speaking, writing, and protesting to let our prophetic voices be heard. My cell group has been helping to keep a beloved family in Camden off the street, and this weekend we collected money from ourselves and others to completely furnish their new apartment. We’re praying that their two boys, who have been missing, can now come home. Many of us parents watched our own sweet kids sing in various holiday pageants as Pakistani parents buried their children this past week. I see God in the outpouring of prayer and resources among our community—not just to Pakistan but to Iraq and Syria and Palestine as well, where the refugee crisis is insurmountable. “He cried on his birthday, he cries with me now.”
The mystery of God-with-us is big and wild. In many ways, it’s an unpredictable, R-rated, unsafe, and undomesticated story of revolution over sin and death, and it began that way too. An unwed, minority woman in occupied territory gives birth without a man’s intervention. The God-child is placed in something akin to a trash bin as the heavens open to announce the triumph of his coming. The local ruler is threatened by strange signs of this birth and the penniless family becomes refugees. But the child survives to heal, illuminate, befriend, and demonstrate the most powerful spiritual movement the world has ever known.
At the same time, God-with-us is a tender and intimate encounter. We could miss it here in these next few days if we fill up with other things, but I think this intimacy is what we really want. We could miss it because God comes like a baby, small and vulnerable. According to the text, the “power of the Most High” that overshadowed Mary was not like a cosmic ZAP. The overshadowing was more like a charged presence, like the presence of God in the pillar of cloud that guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness to the promised land. It is also akin to the nurturing and protective presence of a mother hen gathering her chicks under wings, as Jesus described.
It wasn’t that Mary was full of special favor, like Beyonce’s Flawless (#I woke up like this). The text illustrates that she was given favor by God. Uncaused grace was bestowed upon her. Our culture teaches that we usually have to earn, achieve, purchase, and invent our own favor, but faith teaches that we receive it from God, who gives it generously. Seeking regular connections with God through prayer and worship helps us to know this favor. Withdrawal, of course, keeps us from knowing and growing. The problem, of course, is that our fears and disappointments and distractions can lead us to withdraw from the tiny baby. The invitation in Advent is to see our longing for God in our fears and disappointments and distractions, and to go with that longing instead of being falsely satiated by substitutes or kept away by fear. The invitation in Advent is to pause in our dissatisfaction, and to look for the baby. Chances are that our unsatisfied situation is much like the baby’s: not fully grown, needing care and attention. We are in a good position to receive from God and to be cared for, if we are not too-cool to go there.
This week, my 9-year-old combined words to try to describe the mystery of the incarnation—“GOU: you-in-God and God-in-you”—-and we laughed. Nice theological musing on a mystery that is probably too marvelous to describe in a word. May we keep reaching in our longing this Christmas. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we behold his glory! We may need to be present to those around us and love them (beyond the cute thing we got them from Target) in order to experience the baby. Maybe harder yet, we may need to receive whatever love is given or not given to us in turn.
“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay. But you’re just a baby, it’s not yet your day. Rest now with your mother, for soon you’ll be scarred. Be loved to be lover, be now who you are.”