Based on the Biblical Lessons of Christmas
This Advent season we have been exploring the theme of belonging as we have progressed through the weeks. We have discovered the peace of belonging to something greater than we are, a God that holds our future. We have pondered the miracle of how our spiritual ancestors were inspired to write the Bible so that we might have hope in all seasons of our lives. We have tried to embody the joy of expectation that God is always with us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves. We have heard again that God’s great love for us came down that Christmas so long ago to show us how it is that we are to grow in our discipleship into an altogether love for God and for all our neighbors. All of this is possible because God gave our spiritual ancestors and us a new way to belong to God and one another through Jesus who became the Christ.
Long ago, God chose Father Abraham and Mother Sarah to become the parents of a great multitude. We who are ancestors of Abraham are grateful that he said yes to God and began the relationship that ultimately led God to become incarnate, that is to transform God’s great love into a flesh and blood human. Before this embodiment of love, God remained in our understanding separate and “other” from us and from creation. The full realization of how much God loved us remained to be revealed in the act that happened in an isolated corner of the Roman Empire, in a lowly manger in a cattle stall. Our full belonging to God was not revealed until Jesus came into being and modeled for us the unity of mind, body and spirit, housed in a fully divine yet fully human body that we could see, touch and love.
St. Augustine wrote back in the early 400’s that our hearts are restless until they come to fully understand that they can only find their rest in completely belonging to God. Up until that time, our minds, bodies and spirits are perpetually in a state of unrest searching for something to fill that longing, to provide that peace, to experience that joy and to support our hope. Our discipleship, therefore, is a process of growth in our understanding of how it is that we can embody the mind and heart of Jesus – how we can become love incarnate ourselves and fully belong to God. Such growth is not just growth in intellect, which most often has devolved into arguments of faith and doctrine versus how to love and belong to each other.
This intellectualization of faith becomes apparent when I hear people talk about what is wrong with organized religion or why churches are failing to attract and hold people. What is wrong with Church becomes poor music, lack of programs for all ages, new and more welcoming buildings, incompetent pastors, mean and hard-hearted congregations, or a preoccupation with maintaining institutional Church structures and doctrine. I almost never hear about how the Church has over-thought its faith and under-experienced its heart. In an age of information overload, when an overwhelming variety of media delivers news faster and at a greater volume than any of us can digest – when many of us have far too many e-mail addresses and phone numbers – the last thing any of us needs is the intellectualization of God.
Instead, what we need is the practice of incarnation, through which God gives salvation to those whose intellectual faith has turned to dust, who hunger for the bread of life, who are restless and searching diligently to realize more God in their bodies – in their daily lives. Not more about God, but more God in our everyday lived experience. Jesus modeled the way to embody God’s great love; to belong fully to God and to each other. The daily practice of incarnation – of being in our bodies with the full confidence that God’s love inhabits us, is why God came as Jesus so long ago. Why else would Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to embody the gospel by washing each other’s feet and sharing a meal of Communion? With all the divine truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them (and us) concrete things to do – specific ways of being together in their bodies that would go on teaching them what they needed to understand about being in right relationship to God and to each other.
After he was gone, they would still have God’s Word (thankfully) but that Word was going to need some new flesh until he came again. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a daily basis, something so real that they would not be able to fully explain it and so divinely chaotic that there was no way they could ever gain control over it. Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things that involved all their senses. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over them without belonging to one another in a new and more complete way.
St. Francis realized that if God had become flesh (i.e., taken on the fullness of humanity) then according to God it’s good to be human, it’s good to be on this earth, it’s good to be flesh, it’s good to have emotions, it’s good to be the mass of contradiction that we all are. We don’t need to be ashamed of any of this; God created us this way and called us “very good”. The incarnation of Jesus proves that God loves matter and physicality and says that all of our human messiness belongs. Tonight, when we speak of preparing for Christmas, we’re not just talking about waiting for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened roughly 2,000 years ago. Instead, we’re welcoming the Christ that is forever being born into human souls and histories. We are welcoming the God who loved us so much that God gave God’s-self to us so that we could once and for all times truly belong. Thanks be to God; amen and amen!