How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact?
So asks W. H. Auden in his long poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.”[i] And there is no end of poems over the centuries plumbing the mystery of the Incarnation, the mind-bending paradox of God becoming human: Immensity cloistered in a womb, Creator become creature, Word sentenced to silence —to allude to just a few lines of verse.[ii] All such poetry on the birth of Christ, along with music and art, is merely grasping to apprehend the glory of this finite fact in human history, this infinite event in eternal divinity.
Theologians likewise grasp. In Incarnation, the great Reformed scholar Thomas Torrance distills the doctrine of Christ to “the mystery of true divine nature and true human nature in one person.” He describes it as “something taking place that is so new that it is related to our ordinary knowledge only at its extreme edges,” something that “remains a mystery, so ultimately inconceivable and miraculous” that “we can only acknowledge it in wonder and thankfulness, in adoration and praise.”[iii]
The liturgical season of Christmas offers us twelve days to ponder this mystery, whether focusing on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke (as we began to do last week in our fourth Advent reflection) or chewing on profoundly theological texts like John 1 or Philippians 2 or Hebrews 1. Our contemplation will be like swimming in the warm Atlantic off an east coast beach: even if we brave the deeper waters out beyond the ceaseless waves, we will never be able to swim across that theological ocean or dive to the bottom of its depths.
When it comes to the gospel stories, oddly, it can be hard to extract fresh spiritual insight. We are hindered by overfamiliarity and perhaps sentimentality: the little crèche, the rote carols, the clichéd greeting cards, the charming church pageant. We must try to read the accounts with adult eyes and vivid imaginations:
“We anxiously pace the birthing floor with Joseph. Our hearts pound with the stunned shepherds reeling on the hillside. We wince as the baby is circumcised and nod as he’s given a name destined to excel all names. When old Simeon takes the child in his arms and prophesies, we listen intently. We marvel at the magi arriving with their portentous gifts. We cringe in angry dismay as Herod’s soldiers slaughter the innocent toddlers of Bethlehem. Trudging with the refugee family, we escape into exile with all its inherent difficulties. And sitting with Mary quietly at night, we ponder all these things in our hearts.”[iv]
The “Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” is born in utter obscurity (an overcrowded town ) and near poverty (a borrowed stable) and great vulnerability (a murderous purge of infants). At the same time, the child is heralded by a chorus of angels, presented with treasures from the East, recognized in the Temple by the prophet Anna, and spirited to Egypt by his dream-warned father. And this pattern would mark Jesus’ adult life, alternately ignored and adulated, scorned and adored, cheered and crucified.
No nativity in the gospel of John. Rather, in his opening poetic overture, the apostle echoes the first chapters of Genesis and speaks of the transcendent God who created the cosmos and, enigmatically, of another generative Being: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him….” This Word is life (over against death) and light (over against darkness). And this Word—meaning, revelation, event—becomes human, enfleshed, embodied.
One like us. One with us. One for us.
John bears witness: “We have seen his glory, as of a Father’s son, full of grace and truth,” a fullness from which, he exults, “all have received grace upon grace.”
What does this mean for us? What significance for our quotidian lives? Remember, we are swimming in the ocean here, so I will simply suggest two broad expanses for rumination: the dignity of our humanity and the significance of our work.
All of creation declares the glory of God (Psalm 19) and though humans seem insignificant in relation to the vastness of the cosmos, we’ve already been crowned with a certain glory as creatures made in God’s image and given agency in God’s creation (Psalm 8, a lectionary reading each Christmas). But the incarnation elevates our dignity even higher, as Henri Nouwen revels:
When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human became united. This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite.[v]
In become fully human, God dignifies and values all aspects of our humanity—our physicality and sociality, our minds and emotions, our pleasures and agonies—from our embryonic beginning to our elderly diminishment and all that happens in between. He has promised to redeem and renew us entirely, in body, soul, and circumstance. Every one of us matters infinitely to God.
And our work matters to God! Our work is what we make of this God-given world and how we seek to love one another. Poet Paul Mariani speaks of the “mind-dazzling significance of the implications (and complications) of the Incarnation”:
It is a fact which by its very nature must necessarily have changed forever all human activity, raising it to a higher level, and giving all we do a radically new significance because the divine has entered the equation.[vi]
Whether we are carpenters or caregivers, shepherds or shopkeepers, magi or magistrates, professors or poets, we use our intellects and our bodies, our creative energies and our capacities for love, in ways that honor the God who made us in his likeness and loved us enough to take on our likeness. We glorify him in return by embodying grace and truth.
All this invites “wonder and thankfulness, adoration and praise” in this Christmas season. Even more knowing “the worst our kind can do,” and “the taint in our own selves,” as Denise Levertov puts it in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” She rightly names the awe that “cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart” when we grasp that to us flawed human beings God “entrusts,/as guest, as brother,/the Word.”[vii]
[i] Collected Poems (Random House, 1976), p. 274.
[ii] I open the chapter on the Christmas season in my book Living the Christian Year by quoting from a handful of these poems
[iii] Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (IVP, 2008), p.83.
[iv] Living the Christian Year, (IVP, 2009). P. 65.
[v] Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), entry for September 22.
[vi] “The Word as Living Flame” in Things in Heaven and Earth (Paraclete,1998) p. 146.
[vii] The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013, p. 818.
We appreciate receiving these reflections from Bobby Gross. The previous posts in this series are: Lament: How Long, O Lord, Longing: Come Lord Jesus, Laughter, Bring Us Home With Joy, and Letting Go: May It Be So, Lord.