Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms

For the second time in my life, I am blessed to hold a newborn baby in my arms during the days leading up to Christmas. My daughter Gretchen was born on December 5, 1978. 39 years and one day later, she gave birth to her second son. Nothing humbles me like holding a tiny baby during Advent as I ponder the mystery of God-with-us.

Just as I did with his mother, I rock Justin to sleep in the glow of Christmas tree lights singing, “Silent Night.” And I think about how Jesus began his life in much the same way. With teeny-tiny fingers and toes. A soft spot and fragile little neck that couldn’t support his head. Crying when he was hungry, or wet, or tired. Nourished by his mother’s milk. Cuddled into contentment as he “sleeps in heavenly peace.” I hold him and ponder, How could the Creator of the Universe become so vulnerable, so helpless… so small? 
When my daughter was born, my heart was so full that I couldn’t imagine how it could ever hold as much love for any other human being as it held for her. But along came my son Ben, and I realized that I had been wrong. Yes, I could love another human being just as much as I loved my daughter. Who knew my heart was so big?
Then, with the birth of my first grandson, it happened again. I felt my heart swell and I couldn’t imagine how I could ever love another person the way I loved Nicholas. And yet, by golly, it's happened once again as a six-pound bundle named Justin holds my heart in his miniature hands. It astounds me to experience how the love of each one of them fills my heart completely, while the love of the many doesn’t diminish the love of the one. 
What I appreciate most about being a parent and a grandparent is the transformation it stirs within me. God knows I’m far from the most loving person in the world, and yet my children have stretched me to love in a way that is far beyond me. It brings me as close to divine love as I have ever experienced. Even at that, I know that God’s love for us far surpasses anything I could ever grasp. It’s a parent’s (or a grandparent’s) immeasurable love for one newborn baby extended to every baby ever born. 
More than just a mushy feeling, it’s love that empties itself completely for the sake of the beloved. That’s the wonder of the incarnation. It’s the hope of all the world entrusted to the world. The God of Love trusting in the love of humans. 
The sheer humility of the Word made flesh humbles me. I can hardly get my mind around it. And yet, when I’m holding my newborn grandson, somehow in a way that transcends language or reason, I feel like I am holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Beyond the Manger

Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, right? Yes, and no. It’s about the birth of Jesus, yes, but that’s not all it’s about. The birth of Jesus embodies something profound about God that we often lose in the swaddling clothes and the manger and the straw.

I’m talking about the incarnation here. The word incarnation means an embodiment of a god or a spirit in an earthly form. Christianity, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism all include the concept of incarnation in their belief system. Within Christianity, John’s gospel introduces an incarnational worldview as he begins with the proclamation that the “Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Father Richard Rohr talks about four possible world views that people can adopt.

The first is the materialistic world view. This perspective says the only stuff that’s real is the stuff you can measure, the stuff you can see and touch. It’s the perspective usually taken by a scientific thinker.

The second world view is spiritual. Those who adopt this view spiritualize everything. They don’t take the material world seriously. What you see out there is just an illusion. The real stuff is the inner stuff. It’s the perspective usually taken by a religious thinker.

And then, there’s a third world view that Father Rohr labels as the theological. People with this view spend their lives working really hard to put the material world and the spiritual world back together again.

Now, all three of these views are based on dualistic thought, an either/or way of looking at life. Something is either good or it’s bad. It’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s a rigid way of looking at things and lies at the heart of fundamentalism. And it’s not at all the Jesus Way of being in the world. The Jesus Way honors mystery and paradox.

And that brings us to the fourth world view that Father Rohr identifies. It’s a way of seeing the world that Jesus came to claim: an incarnational world view, which says that matter and spirit have never been separated. While the theological world view works so hard at cramming God back into the material world, the incarnational world view says that you don’t have to cram God back into the world because God never left the world. God has been here all along.

Ironically, the birth of Christ embodies the incarnational nature of God, and yet every year when we celebrate Christmas, we become preoccupied with how we’re going to split it in two. There is the sacred celebration of Christmas and there is the secular celebration of Christmas and we see them as two separate things. Heaven forbid we should mix the two. We don’t sing “Jingle Bells” at a Christmas Eve service because that has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas, we’ll say. And yet, we certainly don’t want to give up “Jingle Bells” and only celebrate Christmas as a sacred holiday. That’s no fun. The implication is, of course, that the sacred celebration is meaningful and the secular celebration is fun. It’s either one or the other, but it can’t be both. So, during the month of December we all adopt split personalities. I wonder if that adds to the stress of the season in a way we don’t even realize.

Well, here’s the thing. The whole point of the incarnation is that there is no line dividing the sacred from the secular. God is a part of it all. Singing a medley that includes both “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” is completely appropriate from an incarnational perspective. In fact, the way that the celebration of Christmas first came into being is an acknowledgement of this. Originally, it was a blend of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

So it always amuses me when I hear Christians getting all hot under the collar because Christmas has become so secularized, as if that is some kind of an affront to God. The only thing that is an affront to God is a dualistic worldview.

The big thing about living in a split universe is that you are always having to decide where God is and where God isn’t. You get all caught up in judging, based on the false assumption that God is selectively present in the world around us. God is in America, but God is not in Iran. God is in Barack Obama but not Donald Trump. God is in Bach but not Lady Gaga. God is in Ascension Lutheran Church but not the Hindu Temple. If we spend all our time determining where God is and where God isn’t, it’s not much of a leap to say, “God is in me but not in you.”

When we live with an incarnational worldview, there’s no decision to be made about where God is and where God isn’t. Yes, we find God wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. But we don’t stop there. We look at the world around us, seeing God in it all.