Christmas: Jesus all grown-up in us

In the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, Mary — the God-bearer — is depicted in a magnificent rose window above the altar. What strikes me is the size of Mary’s womb. Mary sits in this glorious stained-glass circle with outstretched arms and a womb so large it contains Jesus standing as a grown man, with his arms open wide. (Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p. 90)

Why the adult form of Jesus? After all, isn’t the Christmas story of Mary giving birth to the Son of Man about a baby Jesus? Was the artist of this stained glass window confusing metaphors?

Or, is there something more going on here worthy of our reflection?

After all, the historical Jesus was a man. But Christ was not his last name. “The Christ” includes the whole sweep of creation, and history joined with him, including you and me. We are members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ — this ‘mystical union’ we call it in our liturgy; Lutherans have sometimes called it the ‘invisible union’ of the church. Though we cannot claim to be the historical Jesus, obviously, we are, as Martin Luther described it, “little Christs”. We rightly believe in Jesus Christ — and both names — ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ — are important. We, like Mary, are Christ-bearers.

The celebration of Christmas is not merely a reverie about a baby born in Bethlehem. We do the Gospel of Jesus no favour when we make Jesus, the eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us. That may have been the role of Advent — the season of preparing the way of the Lord, when we consider how to make room for the birth of Jesus in our lives. A baby image can be helpful, to start with: A sign of grace that results in a sweet feeling of love.

But, eventually, we have to grow up. A mature Christianity, today, receives the risen Christ in his fullness. In relationship with Jesus the Christ, there come expectations. God wants to relate to us in our adulthood — expecting a full, free, responsible, participatory (Philippians 3:10), cooperative (Romans 8:28) and mature (Ephesians 4:13) adult response from us. When we pray, “Come, Christ Jesus”, we are asking for our own full birth and transformation. God, in our growth, wants ultimately to have an adult relationship with us.

When we read in the Gospel today that we have the power to become “children of God” (John 1:12) we are not relinquishing any responsibility and mature engagement with our faith; being a ‘child of God’, a wonderful expression, simply indicates that God is God and I am not; being a ‘child of God’ describes a quality of trust towards God, a trust that despite any delusion on my part that I can somehow earn God’s favour. Because God still has faith in me. God will never give up on me.

But Christ has come! And it is the risen Christ in 2014, not the historical baby, of two thousand years ago! (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.8-9)

In our lives we have the capability already born within us to have room for our transformation. We are all ‘pregnant’ with the possibility of new life, becoming more than we are, growing up into the fullness promised to us in Christ. For God is with us and in us.

So, what does that path to our transformation look like?

In a modern painting of the manger scene by German artist Beate Heinen, Mary and Joseph hover over their newborn baby boy Jesus. There are no angels in the painting, neither ox and donkey nor any of the people, who in our imagination usually gather around the crib – shepherds and kings; just the three of them: Mary, Joseph and the child lying in a manger, which looks conspicuously like a coffin. The scene is set in a cold cavern like stable from which a winding path leads to a distant hill with three crosses. (Thank you to Rev. Thomas Mertz for this illustration)

In all the glory and celebration of the Advent and Christmas season this image sticks out like a sore thumb. As we celebrate the renewed life and hope for our world in Christ, the reminder to suffering and death creates a stumbling block. And it always has.

“How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?”(Mark 9:12) The words though spoken by Jesus reflect a nagging question on the minds and in the hearts of the disciples: “How can it be that our salvation comes through the suffering of God?” A few years later Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the message about the cross is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1).

You will notice that halfway between the manger and the hill in Beate Heinen’s painting there are three wanderers – a reminiscence of Jesus meeting two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus; still struggling and pondering the same questions, facing the foolishness of the cross.

As all believers they travel the road between the Good News of Christmas, the pain of Good Friday and the Glory of Easter. And it is not until they gather around a table, worshipping and united in the breaking of bread, that in the presence of God all starts to fall into place and their questions come to rest (Luke 24:13-35).

“The word made flesh” is the proclamation of the festive celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The word made flesh! Meaning, that the Word — Jesus Christ — comes into our very ordinary humanity. But not the glory of humanity in all its splendour and might.

Rather, as the Christmas story reveals, Christ comes into the darkest night of our souls — in the outcast, rejected places. Christ comes into the impoverished places of our lives, and of humanity. As at least one theologian has put it (i.e. Gustavo Gutierrez), the Word made flesh should read: The Word made poor. That’s where Jesus is born and is at work. As Saint Paul put it, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

As bread is broken around the Holy Communion, Christ comes into the broken places in us and into the world where healing is needed. The circle in the Georgia Monastery stained glass reminds me of the trajectory of my life — the promise of completion, wholeness, fulfillment is there, in Christ Jesus. I am continually being re-made, transformed; I am growing, in Christ Jesus. And so are you.

The rest of the world wants to finish Christmas this morning. But the true Christmas message that begins today does not allow us to keep stuck in our baby Christianity. But invites us to grow up — no matter how young we are — in a maturing faith, deepening commitment, and active Christian witness to the newborn King!

May we grow into a fuller, deeper celebration of Christmas in the days to come, as we ponder the mystery of God’s incarnation, God entering our humanity.

Christmas camping

For any one who likes to camp in one of our provincial parks, and wants to secure that ‘perfect’ site for the summer time vacation, better boot up your computer soon! The rule is: you can make an online reservation up to five months in advance of the date you wish go camping.

So you can perhaps understand that along with enjoying the many blessings of this Christmas tide, my thoughts are also going the direction of outdoor summer camping.

And while I’ve never been very successful beating others online to that ‘perfect’ site, my family has enjoyed some beautiful camp sites over the years.

We define a good site as one that, above all, gives us some privacy; that is, there are as many trees, wild grass, shrubs, and distance between our site and the ones around us. Ideally, our site would back onto a green space, a pond, a beach, sand dunes, or a wild growing, dense thicket of bush.

Conversely, the least favourable site would be one from which we could watch the TV show blaring through the window of the RV next to us, or sing along to the lyrics sounding from the radio propped on the picnic table next site over, or play catch-the-ball with the neighbour’s pet whose leash extends across our campsite.

You get the picture. Instinctively, the last thing we want is someone next to us. Even though, as it turns out, those who pitch their tent next to us are more often than not good people.

At Christmas, we hear about and celebrate the truth that God came to us. And God didn’t come to us like a visitor would, and then leave. God entered human flesh by being born into this world. And this “incarnation” as Christians call it, was an event that changed the world forever.

In the Gospel of John we read: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). “Lived among us” in the culture of first century Palestine more accurately rendered is: “Pitched a tent by us”. You can imagine the nomadic movement of people across the Judean wilderness. Putting up a tent beside another assumed a trusting relationship, where co-travelers in a harsh environment would seek solace, safety and security – in one another.

This notion of God ‘pitching a tent’ next to us is expressed elsewhere throughout sacred scripture. In the last book of the Bible, we read: “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). In the Wisdom poetry we hear the voice of the Word that became flesh – Jesus Christ — say: “Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel’” (Ecclesiasticus 24:8). Of course, the very name given to Jesus as instructed by the angel to Joseph in a dream is Immanuel, which means: “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 / Isaiah 7:14).

I must confess my human instinct sometimes goes against this Gospel pull towards involvement with other people, and their involvement with me – especially with people whom I don’t know. Like what happens initially at the camp site. The ones who pitch their tent, so to speak, beside me are at first suspect. Could I trust these strangers who come from outside my circle of family, friends and community at home, and intersect with, even intrude into, my life?

Perhaps the answer lies in the mystery of this incarnation, where the Holy Spirit found a home in Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is truly remarkable, when you think about it, how God was born from a human person.

But the popular, religious focus on Mary can be fruitful if that miracle is seen as extending to all of humanity, all of us – not just Mary. Obviously, the infant Jesus was born from Mary. But Mary was just a teenager, a country girl, representing really the common, sinful yet transformed human being in us all, as Christians.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.

This ritual reminds each family that the gift of God comes to us, first of all, since you don’t get a statue for your own home; someone else gives it to you. And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was no sin. Yes, Mary was sinful as a human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she was pure and reflecting truly the image of God in her.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in families of all kinds, especially at this time of year, there is also a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst ourselves. We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Ephesians 3:16-19). We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed and transformed and united in God.

So rather than right away assume the worst, rather than initially write off those intruders on my camp-site, those strangers who ‘pitch a tent’ so close to mine, perhaps I need to appreciate anew the gift in them that appears. Perhaps God is coming to me again, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).

Indeed, love has come. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41