Pure crystal water flowing freely down the middle of Main Street, dust and dirt free. Green trees border the stream, bearing bountiful fruit of a dozen varieties, one each month. Pure sunshine in the pure air, darkness forever banished. It is John’s picture of heaven in Revelation 22. John continuously makes the caveat throughout Revelation that he can’t fully describe what he sees, because there is no earthly comparison. This picture suffers from the same flaw of being inadequate to really portray the scene in its full glory, but nevertheless, you get the idea.
When one of my daughters was in her teens, she crossed the border with me from the affluent orderly and tidy streets of San Diego for her first visit to Mexico. In a matter of a few steps, one is thrust into a different world, of dust, chaos, noise, uproar, in your face, beggars, vendors, sweaty soldiers, the diesel-air of urban recycled-schoolbus transit. I will never forget the look of utter shock and recoil on her face.
The environment described in Revelation 22 was the only one the Son of God had known, a life of total fulfillment, glory and joy. My daughter’s experience does not fully describe what he must have felt in the kenosis ( = the emptying of his heavenly glory) of his earthly arrival, but nevertheless, you get the idea.
The process has the tidy theological name of Incarnation. But the word, when taken apart, gives a clue. It is carnal, from which we get carnivore, creatures like ourselves who do violence to our fellow creatures. In the original Garden and in the paradise to come, we are reminded in Isaiah 11 “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” The consequences of human sin, much wider than we imagine, will be gone. In this world, the reflection of the Creator’s intention is still visible in its beauty and warmth, but so are the distortions, caused by us but visited on flora, fauna and environment.
Thus, to portray the Incarnation as a sweet, and lovely occasion is off the mark. Birth in general is painful and messy. This one was rude as well, the rough manger in a drafty, probably dirty cave or stable, only partly shielded from weather. Not quite the safe, antiseptic environment of a hospital labor room, where even the family dog can’t enter, let alone large working animals for draft or dairy.
All this is the beginning of kenosis, the process of crossing the border between the paradise which exists around God and our world of sorrow, pain, violence and malfeasance, to experience the humility of what it is to be part of fallen mankind and a world of poverty. Whatever the admirable qualities of Mary and Joseph are, and they are significant, they are at best what we would call “lower middle class” or maybe just plain poor, far from the grand and impressive Roman nobility who lived in great comfort and luxury. They live in a land occupied by a foreign power, subject to the whim of the Emperor, which is why they are far from home when the birth occurs. And it is a world of spiritual poverty, where religious leaders are often corrupt and a cruel, cold society creates multiple hardships and minimal spiritual fulfillment for its people.
Most of us know the story. The life begun in a conception disapproved of by society (because of the unmarried mother) and the rough birth will continue through tumultuous and controversial years to end in a rougher death. The kenosis will grow until it is complete in the separation finally from the Father.
But although we may know the story, many have trouble connecting with it. They consider religion to be a spiritual, not carnal concept. And religious leaders are not themselves famous for kenosis, despite some inspiring exceptions. Religious leaders have also more often than not taught us to despise the same flesh our Lord assumes. They have said that spiritual is superior to material, celibacy is better than matrimony, priests are better than farmers, the soul is better than the body, Sabbath is better than weekday, church buildings better than office buildings.
Jesus teaching is quite opposite. As the Pharisees complained, he “came eating and drinking,” guilty as charged. He proclaimed the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around, and did the material work of healing and harvesting on the day. He validates all vocations, as do Peter and Paul after him, not just priesthood. He sees value in the ointment lovingly poured upon him and in the humble washing of feet. Therefore, we confess he “was made man,” not a spook.
Christmas is the festival when we celebrate the reclaiming of the earth by God. When Jesus takes our flesh upon himself, it sends the clear message that our flesh is sanctified, not despised. Those who have a low self-image need to understand that God disagrees with them. If God has created you, body, soul and mind, you cannot, by definition, be junk. The earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24). Therefore, you are the Lord’s. And that means all of you. He did not create a piece of throwaway garbage called your “body” in order to imprison your soul until it can escape through death to better quarters. Greek pagan philosophers have had a baleful influence on western Christianity with the idea. Christmas refutes them.
Thus, Incarnation is God’s arrival to reclaim his own property. Human sin, rebellion and mismanagement will not ultimately prevail. Attempts to hijack Incarnation into some “spiritual” realm away from everyday life must be confronted and defeated. Those who prefer to act out their political, economic or personal disobedience of God’s will undisturbed by a God who wanders only in “spiritual” realms will face an inconvenient truth: God is the Lord of the earth, all of it, and he is fully present.
Kenosis can fool those whose lives are driven by power, arrogance, and aggression. Humility seems an unlikely weapon. But Jesus says “the first will be last,” and appears to mean it. That the world, including much of the church, has spent all history determined to prove him wrong, probably causes some merriment among the Trinity, “the One enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2).
So he has come, in utter humility, across the drastic frontier from heavenly glory to earthly humility, to claim his beloved earth, and you, his beloved creature, so lovingly and carefully created to be his child and image, to share the flesh which he has sanctified, to serve him in humility as he humbly serves, so that you might be absorbed with him into the glorious Paradise intended for all earth’s creatures.
May your Christmas be carnal, enveloping all the dust and chaos with the Presence of the Lord who in flesh and blood, bread and wine, man and woman, lion and lamb, arrives among us, through the Blessed Material Woman who is first among Christians, to absorb all of our life, messy and painful, into his glorious Body. As he has come to share our life, we will come to share his, in glory, in the earth that is the Lord’s and beyond. That glory is beyond our ability to really grasp, but nevertheless you get the idea.