I was thinking about the weaknesses of the flesh, especially the aging flesh, as I realized I had driven off to church and the Christmas pageant, without my glasses. I turned around and retrieved them, so all was well, and I could read my lines and music, gold halo on head, white robe donned, even wings yearning to fly. After all I was an angel, a key role in the Heavenly Host.
But now, this afternoon, reflecting on this morning’s beautiful Fourth Sunday in Advent, it is fitting to consider our decaying bodies. It is fitting to tell the story of Christmas with every generation present, to tell the story of the glorious Incarnation. It is fitting to include the prequel of Adam and Eve and their tragic decision about that apple long ago. Our flesh, after all, is what incarnation is, a word meaning literally, in the flesh. The Incarnation itself, that moment in history two thousand years ago when God took on our mortal flesh to reverse that choice in the Garden of Eden, is an event we have come to know as Christmas, derived from the Old English Cristes moeses, “the Mass of the festival of Christ.”
The Incarnation of God in human flesh, Christmas, while certainly overladen and hopefully not disguised with modern excess, still celebrates the kernel of this festival of love. Gift-giving is about love. Hospitality is about love. Christmas concerts celebrate love. The story of Saint Nicholas, fourth-century Bishop of Myrna known today as Santa Claus, is particularly about love. We delight in love when we light the fir tree to honor the Tree of Life, the Cross, for indeed, the tree that bore the tragic fruit becomes the wood that holds the loving sacrifice for mankind. Mary is the new Eve, Christ the new Adam and the bearer of the fruit of salvation, the giver of incarnate love.
So the other day, when the huge fir tree worked its way through the small backdoor of our home and the needles flooded our living room, making quite a mess, I embroidered the event into my tapestry of Christmas. When I climbed the ladder to string the lights and run the garlands glittering and dancing through the greens, I embroidered the moment into my tapestry. When I crouched under the lower branches and poured two jugs of water into the bowl (a thirsty tree) I wove this action, which has become over the years its own ritual, into my Christmas tapestry. These are the small ones, the blessed ones. There are so many other rituals and symbols, far more famous: the evergreen wreath with its symbols of life, the candles with their flames of light and hope, the glorious music (Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, to name a few) and the charming carols that retell the story again and again. So rich a season! So rich a tapestry! The beauty may be too great to bear.
But I shall wait for Christmas Eve for the ornaments, collected over the years, to be hung by one of our grandsons. And I shall wait for many more moments like this, this week of Christmas, and shall weave them into my life.
All the rituals of Christmas, and they vary from family to family in details but not essentials, express this stupendous miracle, one we can’t find words for: love come down among us. C.S. Lewis said that there is a difference between believing in a god and believing in this God. This God, this specific God, makes it clear that there is nothing vague about Christian belief, and who this God is, what he is like, what he does for us. It is as though the sensory details of our physical world, our bodies, are part of this God, this Creator. He knows us; we reflect him in some mysterious way. He became one of us to know us better. And since that moment outside Bethlehem when eternity intersected time, the world has been changed. We saw love incarnate. We saw truth and we saw beauty and and we saw goodness.
Christ, the Son of God, taught us how to be changed. He gave us ways to heal our corrupt flesh, our destructive selfishness, our hurtful pride. Love one another, he said, as I have loved you.
But, many ask, how do we know this child in Bethlehem, this carpenter from Galilee, is the Son of God? Wasn’t this all made up by fanatics?
We know this because of the resurrection stories that refused to die. Because Jesus the Christ (Greek for the anointed one, messiah in Hebrew) conquered death, and thus he was divine, outside mortal time, with power over mortal flesh. Because he did these things, and we trust the accounts, we listen to him. His words speak deeply to us about our lives, our world, and how to love one another. He perfects us through simple belief, repentance, and intention to follow him. He raises us with him through his own death and resurrection, for that wood of the Cross bridges Heaven and Earth, God and Man, Love and Un-love. But we must experience our own “little deaths” of self to find our true and beautiful and good selves.
We know this carpenter was the Second Person of God because of the foolhardy yet loving behavior of his followers, the first Church. These were ordinary folk who changed dramatically, caring for the poor, protecting human life, irrespective of age, gender, race, born and unborn. He preached that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, the mournful will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, the merciful will be shown mercy, the pure-in-heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called the children of God. The two “Beatitudes” that follow are warnings to his followers about their future martyrdoms. And it is these martyrdoms, beginning with Nero in 67 A.D., that powerfully witness to this Galilean carpenter being the Son of God. These saints believed he was divine, and in this sense were in love with him, and they died painful deaths to witness to their belief, and to their love. They changed our world forever.
And so, as I took my little place with the other angels and shepherds in the chancel of our parish church, and as I gazed upon Mary and Joseph and the baby (we had a real baby this year, three months old), I gave thanks. I gave thanks for another year of life, but more importantly, another year as a Christian. For my Christmas tapestry is growing, as I added another pageant to my weave. My fellow Christians dance among the threads, singing and praising God, Gloria, Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo, the heavenly angels’ song to the earthly shepherds that starry night, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.
Deo gratias and Merry Christmas!