One of the side effects of teaching and caring for young children for nearly a decade was that I began imagining the younger years of most of the people around me. I’d spend eight hours a day, five days a week paying very close attention to the children in my care. Some years they were four year olds learning how to negotiate their personal space and property with others. Some years they were two year olds learning how to negotiate their own unruly bodies. Either way, during the day, I tried to pay attention to what moved them, in the hope that I could help them in some small way grow. It was a constant source of awe for me how each child bloomed with their own distinct way of being in the world, a passion for construction, a zeal for movement, a propensity for introspection. By night, as I moved among the spheres of my grown-up friends, I couldn’t help but wonder what signs might have shown them to be who they would become as children. Were you the one perpetually falling into someone else’s block tower? The one who ate crayons? Maybe the one who always denied soiling himself? One night I was watching two friends of mine in a graduate performance, one was a countertenor and the other was his accompanist. They dazzled their way through a selection of Baroque arias, each of them in the prime of their skill, creating beautiful music together. I could not help but wonder what it was like for their parents to see them up there. I could not help but wonder what they were like as children, what signs they must have displayed to signify the greatness which was to come. I feel the same way every time I’m at my husband’s parents house and see pictures of him and his sister as children. I laugh when I see videos of them as children because they were already so much like themselves even then. I smile to see people whom I’ve come to love as adults pictured in their earliest years, still so new with the life ahead of them.
It’s hard to say when we started telling the story that we tell each year on this night. One can imagine aged shepherds circled around a campfire recalling the night that the heavens opened and strange portents appeared. One can imagine an aged mother, sitting in the corner of a busy house, telling some young maid about the first time she gave birth, the indignity of a barn, the anxiety of imagining her newborn child in the public eye. But it is easiest for me to imagine a group of disciples sitting amidst the aftermath of an unwieldy new movement well beyond their control wondering where in the world their beloved friend and teacher had come from in the first place. Some fixated on ancestry. Some spoke of choirs of angels and submissive kings. Some went so far as to begin the story with time itself, before the world was even made. The truth about the miraculous story that we tell this time of year is that we wouldn’t be telling it at all if the miraculous things which followed hadn’t happened. We wouldn’t be telling this story unless a group of women and men had come to know God directly through the companionship and teaching and healing and listening and storytelling of their friend. We wouldn’t be telling this story if they hadn’t known God so fully in the flesh that they still continued to experience his living even after death had tried to end it. We wouldn’t be telling a story of miraculous birth unless the first members of our church had experienced a miraculous rebirth from among the tools of state-sanctioned torture and execution. Their experience of life in death colored every memory the disciples shared of their friend and teacher’s sojourn on the earth. Looking backwards from the perplexing mystery of the empty tomb changed the way they recollected everything, including the stories they told about his nativity.
The Incarnation of the Living God did not only happen one night, in a moment of conception or birth or visitation. The Incarnation of God happened countless times in the daily life Jesus lived on the earth. In Jesus, God was incarnate at the dinner tables of sex workers and financial extortionists. In Jesus, God was made flesh through the disappearance of leprous boils, through crystal clear vision that came into focus after years of blindness. In Jesus, God was a body that stood between a woman and the crowd of men who meant to stone her, a body that wept at the death of his friends, a body that disappeared from crowds into silent seclusion, a body that slept and ate and drank. The Incarnation of God is no less of a body now. The Incarnation of God knits no less a body by the Holy Spirit from the Church, a countless sea of hearts and hands given up to ordinary moments of solidarity and compassion with a wounded, dying world.
The Incarnation of the Living God in human flesh and blood and voice reminds me that I have never known God at all apart from other people. I have never listened to a choir of angels without the help of Mozart or Benjamin Britten. I have not received the message of an angel apart from a pair of eyes asking for help. I have been loved in my life during some of the times when I most needed it. I have been admonished when I needed to change. I have been listened to when my wounds needed airing. And I have heard my friends speak of Jesus in a way that describes something which I recognize in my own life but can only barely articulate sometimes: the presence, as of a person, of what made me who I am, what makes some children engineers and others musicians, of what makes mountains tall and water flow and air good to breathe when the lichen grows nearby, not as an impersonal thing or force or power, but as a you which can be spoken to, a you which can respond and repair, a you who is still there when as yet there is nothing else. In reply, I have tried to speak of Jesus, too, in the same ways my friends have, in the same ways the disciples and evangelists first did, in tall tales and senseless risks and creeds and Eucharist, in the hope that we are speaking of the same person, the same Spirit, the same ghost. Which is to say that God’s nativity in my own life has only ever occurred in the willingness of someone else to stand beside me and share the story of it, as our people have done in scripture and the breaking of bread week after week after year after year for centuries. It’s span and depth, now touching all aspects of what can possibly be human always makes me wonder: where in the world did you come from, God? What were you like way back when? Would we have known, if we had seen you then, what love and wonder was to come?