Daily Meditations

The Thirteenth Day of Christmas Advent. Birth.

Birth, any birth, is our primary access to the creative work of God. And we birth much more than human babies. Our lives give birth to God’s kingdom every day—or, at least, they should. And Jesus’ virgin birth provides and maintains the focus that God himself is personally present and totally participant in creation; this is good news, indeed.  Every birth is kerygmatic. The birth of Jesus, kept fresh in our imaginations and prayers in song and story, keeps our feet on solid ground and responsive to every nuance of obedience and praise evoked by the life all around us.

But the actual birth of Jesus has never been an easy truth for people to swallow. There are always plenty of people around who will have none of this particularity: human ordinariness, body fluid, raw emotions of anger and disgust, fatigue and loneliness. Birth is painful. Babies are inconvenient and messy. There is immense trouble in having children. God having a baby? It’s far easier to accept God as the creator of the majestic mountains, the rolling sea, and the delicate wild flowers.

When it comes to the sordid squalor of the raw material involved in being human, God is surely going to keep his distance. Or, is he? We may fantasize deep aspirations native to our souls that abhor this business of diapers and debts, government taxes and domestic trivia. Deep in our bones we may have the sense that we must have been created for higher things, that there is a world of subtle ideas and fine feelings and exquisite ecstasies for us to cultivate.

Somewhere along the way some of us become convinced that our souls are different—a cut above the masses, the common herd of philistines that trample the courts of the Lord. Such people become connoisseurs of the sublime.

As it turned out, the ink was barely dry on the stories telling of the birth of Jesus before people were busy putting out alternate stories that were more “spiritual” than those provided in our Gospels. A rash of apocryphal stories, with Jesus smoothed out and universalized, flooded the early church. They were immensely popular. They still are. And people are still writing them. These alternate stories prove very attractive to a lot of people.

In these accounts of the Christian life, the hard-edged particularities of Jesus’ life are blurred into the sublime divine. The hard, historical factuality of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh as God’s full and complete revelation of himself, is dismissed as crude. Something finer and more palatable to sensitive souls is put in its place: “Jesus was not truly flesh and blood, but entered a human body temporarily in order to give us the inside story on God and initiate us into the secrets of the spiritual life.” And, “Of course he didn’t die on the cross, but made his exit at the last minute. The body that was taken from the cross for burial was not Jesus at all, but a kind of costume he used for a few years and then discarded.”

It turns out in these versions that Jesus merely role-played a historical flesh-and-blood Christ for a brief time and then returned to a purely spiritual realm. If we accept that version of Jesus, we are then free to live the version: we put up with materiality and locale and family for as much and as long as necessary, but only for as much and as long as necessary. The material, the physical, the body—history and geography and weather, people—are temporary scaffolding; the sooner we realize that none of it has anything to do with God and Jesus, the better.

The attractions of employing this temporary scaffolding are considerable. For those of us who take this point of view, the feature attraction is that we no longer have to take seriously either things or people. Anything we can touch, smell, or see is not of God in any direct or immediate way.

But it’s hard to maintain this view of things through the Christmas season…. Christmas forces us to deal with all the mess of our humanity in the context of God who has already entered that mess in the glorious birth of Jesus.

~Adapted from Eugene Peterson, “Introduction,” GOD WITH US:  Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe