It’s now the second day of Christmas’s twelve days, and already we can feel the world around us pressuring us to get back to our old routines. Stores have reopened, and retailers are cringing behind their counters, waiting to take back all those gifts people turned out not to want after all. Decorations are coming down. It’s time to get ready for New Year’s Eve.
But Christmas is anything but over. I don’t just mean our Church Calendar’s twelve days until Epiphany. I mean this crazy idea that produced the Church, this season, maybe even some of the materialism—this idea that once upon a time God actually came to live with us IN THE FLESH. And now the world can’t ever be the same again. Christmas is anything but over.
It’s not that God was ever absent before Jesus came along. The world was always full of God’s very life, no matter how hard it’s tried to live on its own. God’s love for the whole world had already taken visible shape in the story of a tiny, Middle-East people. But somehow, in this story of birth, growth, faithfulness, betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection, the life that calls forth and fills the whole universe came together like light through a magnifying glass to kindle a fire that can’t be extinguished.
We’re invited to see the very life of God shining out of every moment of Jesus’ life—not just his good days, but out of every tiresome, untidy moment. His own flesh is God’s flesh, and through his risen life that same flesh becomes our flesh too, and we shine out as the Body of Christ—not just on our good days, but out of every tiresome, untidy, not-so-faithful moment.
Archbishop William Temple was only exaggerating a little when he remarked that this crazy idea—this idea that the Word became flesh, that God became downright carnal—makes Christian faith “the most avowedly MATERIALIST of all the great religions.”* So while it’s true that our frenzied shopping patterns are nothing to brag about, even here, at our most “dysfunctional,” God is at home with us.
God actually came to live with us IN THE FLESH. And now the world can’t ever be the same again. Christmas is anything but over.
So how come the world doesn’t look that different? How can we say anything’s changed when our whole nation, indeed our whole world, seems bent on tearing itself apart? How can we say anything’s changed when our livelihood and wellbeing are threatened by a constantly mutating virus? Just what do we think has changed when the light that shines in the darkness doesn’t seem to be making any headway at dispelling the darkness we’ve discovered in ourselves? Why do so many people feel depressed and alone at a time we’ve set aside to celebrate the goodness of life here and now? Why is it that not just back then but today that God comes to God’s own people, and we just can’t seem to accept it?
Do you remember a movie scene where a single mother comes home with her date? They start to get romantic, and as things are heating up she has to jump up to care for her little boy. He’s just been noisily sick in the next room. She returns, they try to pick up where they left off, but her date notices a stain on her sweater. And with that he backs off to leave and says, “Sorry, this is just too much reality.”
Too much reality! God may be fully at home in our flesh, but that doesn’t mean we are. When what we’ve dreamed for our whole life starts to become reality, we can feel threatened. Dreams seem so much safer than reality! They’re certainly not so messy. We love to picture the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Mary had to change him and clean him up a few hours later—or maybe she made Joseph do it, who knows? Whatever dreams they had about the coming reign of God, you can be sure they took a back seat to a desperate yearning for the day when God-with-us would finally sleep through the night. When dreams become reality they come connected with all sorts of fleshy complications, and we’re not ready to deal with that.
And when dreams become reality we can’t protect them the way we could when they were mostly in our imagination. John’s Gospel doesn’t bring Mary into the picture at Jesus’ birth. She makes two appearances—at a wedding feast and at an execution. In one scene she stands by in awe as the son she loves more than life itself brings more joy than she could imagine to an already happy occasion. In the other scene she stands by in helpless grief as she finally realizes she can’t protect her son from the worst the world can do to him.
Parents know all about this, but you don’t have to be a parent to know what she faced. Whenever your dreams take flesh in someone you love more than life itself, you know how powerless it can make you feel. You know how hard it is to let that someone have a life that you can’t always be there to protect. You just can’t prepare yourself enough for that much reality.
We’re also not ready to deal with a God who can get that close. When God comes to live with us in the flesh, everything gets exposed. Maybe we’re afraid that a God who knows us that well wouldn’t want to stay. We’re promised that won’t happen, but we’ve heard other promises like that, and they got broken. Or maybe we’re even more threatened by a God who knows us that well and still loves us just as much—and then won’t leave! That means we might have to learn to love ourselves too, the way God loves us, even the parts of our lives that shame us, and that’s very hard work. It can feel like you have to start over at it every day of your life, and it can be overwhelming. Too much reality!
So it’s no surprise that the world around us pushes us back to our familiar routines. So does the world within us. It’s no surprise that ever since that first Christmas the story of the world, the story of God’s people, and our own stories are filled with efforts to put out the fire that was kindled then. We feel all kinds of pressure to put Christmas safely away like the tree decorations packed up in the attic for next year.
So maybe we wonder if it’s such good news to proclaim that God actually came to live with us in the flesh. Maybe we’d rather not hear that Christmas is anything but over.
And if that’s how you feel, maybe this doesn’t sound very sensitive of me—but I think it’s time to say, “Get over it.” God has come to live with us. The world won’t ever be the same. Like it or not, we won’t get anywhere hoping that God will get tired of us and go home—because this is God’s home, this world, your life and mine, with all its clutter, all its pain and all its joys. You’re going to have to let yourself be known exactly for who you are and loved beyond what you’re ready to believe. You can avoid it, you can look away, but you’re only wasting time. It’s not too much reality—it’s life at its fullest, and you might as well start living it now.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Christmas is anything but over. Thank God!
*William Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1934), p. 478. Italics added. This is definitely an exaggeration. Surely Jews and Muslims could say something like this too, so it’s better to avoid competitive comparisons.