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.

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