I love this story from James Bryan Smith about John of Kronstadt: “He was a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest at a time when alcohol abuse was rampant. None of the priests ventured out of their churches to help the people. They waited for people to come to them. John, compelled by love, went out into the streets. People said he would lift the hungover, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms and say to them, ‘This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.’”
That is incarnation.
- The Word became flesh in Jesus, in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell."
- Because of this, we are ones in whom Christ dwells. We are meant to “be filled with all the fullness of God."
- Therefore, as Christ’s body (the church), we do what John of Kronstadt did and carry the message to whatever part of the world in which we find ourselves: "You, too, were meant to house the fullness of God."
Jesus did not live in human flesh for his own sake. You are not one in whom Christ dwells for your own benefit. The church is not Christ’s body just so that we can have a good time together. Rather, we follow a Messiah who understood himself as sent from his Father in the heavens–he came in the flesh, lived, died, and rose again to show us what God is like and to give us the opportunity to "share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity."
The challenge of carrying a message like that into the world is the degree to which we must allow ourselves to be touched if the message is to go anywhere. It simply isn’t a message that can mean anything if shouted from a distance.
From one angle, incarnation means allowing ourselves to be touched by others. A friend of mine says, "Jesus shows us a picture of God getting his hands dirty….And this is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn about God and his holy care: God's hands are dirty because he's involved–intimately involved–in our mess. Experiencing God’s way of caring includes turning our desperate, messy lives to the beautiful, loving God who is right there with us in the mess–arms outstretched, welcoming us into his company, into his power, into his reality. And with him, we offer the same care to others.”
A life of this kind of care was that of Father Damien, a missionary to Hawaii in the 1800s who volunteered to be the priest for a leper colony. He built them a church and a reservoir, bandaged wounds, built homes and furniture, made coffins, and dug graves. "He used to tell them every week, 'God loves you lepers.' And then one week he got up and he said, 'God loves us lepers.’" He died from leprosy four years later after living with and serving lepers for sixteen years in the name of the Messiah who said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
For most of us, the ways incarnation will mean allowing ourselves to be touched won’t be something as dramatic as they were for Father Damien. My own father had his much less-seen ways of this kind of life. In west Texas, we have an abundance of sharp, painful little thorny things called goathead stickers. I’ll never forget watching my him bend over and remove a dozen or so of them from my wife’s shoes after going on a walk together–getting stuck by them so that she wouldn’t have to. It was a rancher’s version of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. It was an everyday kind of incarnation.
Real adoration of the Messiah born in Bethlehem always leads to becoming the same kind of person as him, which points us toward the other, even more foundational challenge of carrying the message of incarnation into the world: incarnation means allowing ourselves to be touched by God.
To attempt to do the kinds of things Christ did, without constant, long participation in the process of becoming the kind of person he is, is something we attempt too often, and it ends up doing damage. In a way, we can communicate “you are meant to house the fullness of God” by painting it on a sandwich board sign and wearing it around, but that keeps the message external to us. The only real way we can carry that message is to become what it says.
Describing the same thing in a different way, Dallas Willard states, “The way to get as many people into heaven as you can is to get heaven into as many people as you can–that is, to follow the path of genuine spiritual transformation or full-throttle discipleship to Jesus Christ. When we are counting up results we also need to keep in mind the multitudes of people (surrounded by churches) who will not be in heaven because they have never, to their knowledge, seen the reality of Christ in a living human being.”
I want to know what it’s like to let heaven into us, and through us, into our world–to let Christmas take its full effect. That requires that we allow God to enter us to the degree God entered our world in Bethlehem. If the young king born to Mary and Joseph is to reign more fully in the part of the world where you and I have any say over things, it will be because we have adored him, opened ourselves to him, and allowed him to abide and reign in us. Our lives then become a vessel of grace to the world just as his was. As he told the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you."
So perhaps if we began these twelve days of Christmas by singing “Silent Night,” it’s fitting to end them with “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” I hope that we do so understanding that the way to legitimately tell another that Jesus Christ is born is to spend significant time alone on that mountain with God, just as Christ himself did. We must give him room to abide more fully in us, and we in him. I also hope that we see that we don’t pursue this kind of life with God alone, but that we do so in communities who encourage one another, helping one another to live in ways conducive to the fullness of God, rather than holding each other back from it. Once we do that, ever more convinced of the reality of God-with-us, we may not be able to contain ourselves when we turn to sing:
"Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her King.”
Alleluia! To us a child is born: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia!
Because you gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother; so that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become your children:
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
- James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God, 162.
- Robert C. Pelfrey, Rock God: How God Shakes, Rattles and Rolls Our Easy-Listening Lives, 83.
- On Father Damien, see:
- John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Kindle Locations 524-526)
- Ortberg, God is Closer Than You Think, 121-122.
- Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, 239.