People have been trying to describe and define the incarnation of God in Jesus since, well, since it happened. It’s a tough project — trying to use finite human language to contain the presence of an infinite God in a finite human body. How could a single human frame possess the unfathomable love of God? The question, at least for me, bends the mind.
Even the Scriptures are reduced to metaphors. Jesus is introduced as the light of the world, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the good shepherd, the new Adam — indeed, even the term Son of God is a metaphor, as Jesus enters this world through a human family.
Today we celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, and we are confronted with the additionally astonishing notion that God broke into our world in a personal way not just in the form a human, but in the form of a baby human. All the power and glory and majesty of God, we’re told, are compressed into the presence of a tiny, helpless, dependent child.
As astonishing as this notion is, we believe it. We believe it, if you’re like me, because we have experienced it. We have experienced the infinite presence of God through the person of Jesus Christ. Maybe we experienced it through an encounter with Scripture, or in prayer, or through a church community or in a relationship. For me, this is the proof that what happened at the first Christmas is true, and that it happens still.
Words are inadequate to fully express the presence of God in Christ. Theologians, mystics and spiritual leaders have written, spoken or lived such that we apprehend more of God’s loving presence. Metaphors help us understand and better experience parts of it. We have “seen the light,” we have been nourished by Christ as with bread, we have been guided by him like a shepherd guides and protects his flock.
But there is more. God animates all that is and ever was. Jesus is this God — as an infant, a young man and an adult.
Today’s Gospel reading presents us with the idea that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Another metaphor, and perhaps the richest one we can know. Our words are our selves, but they are not ourselves. Jesus is the voice of God, but he is separate from God. He is the expression of God in human form.
I’m content to know that I can’t really explain God. The Nativity of the Lord should cause awe and excitement in us — awe because of the presence of something, rather someone, immeasurable; and excitement because if we can’t fully express God, we can’t predict how God will work in our world and in our lives. Perhaps a better word for what the Nativity should provoke in us is one that suggests both humility and excitement, like what was provoked in the shepherds, angels and wise men: worship.
Glory to God in the highest!
Maybe it is a good idea for us as a new year begins is to keep sight of all the good things that God has done in our lives, and to reflect on them as we hope for an even better new year.
Mary, Mother of God
When someone says “New Year,” what do you think of? Parties? Dick Clark? Football? I think of one word: Resolutions. I don’t know why, but that’s the word-association that goes on in my mind. The turn of the clock at midnight, December 31, invites us to contemplate a new start to something in our lives — after the parties and after the football, of course.
It is fitting, I suppose, that the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God falls on New Year’s Day this year. Mary is, after all, the starting point of the Christian faith — it began with her pregnancy — and New Year’s is a time of new beginnings, or at least the possibility of new beginnings.
Really, January 1 is just another date on the calendar. But it has become something much more than that in the popular imagination. It now comes with it a sense of hope and expectation for better things. We hope to have a better year. Superficially, we might hope to lose weight, eat better or shed some undesired habit. More profoundly, especially in this time of economic crisis, we might hope for some resolution to the many challenges we’ve faced recently. We might hope for a job, a place to live or some kind of financial relief.
In today’s Gospel, Mary, Joseph and the newborn Christ are visited by shepherds who were alerted to the Messiah’s birth by angels. It must have been a bit of a shock to have a group of men barge into the barn where the family had taken shelter. The shepherds tell Mary about their encounter with angels, and Mary, we’re told “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
Maybe it is a good idea for us as a new year begins is to keep sight of all the good things that God has done in our lives, and to reflect on them as we hope for an even better new year. And maybe we can resolve, in addition to our other resolutions, to do this practice more regularly. It might just make it easier for us to be faithful when the next crisis arrives.
Is New Year’s Day just another day on the calendar? Yes and no. It isn’t the beginning of the church year, of course, but it is a time when we are moved to reflect on our lives and reset our goals. The Christmas season is about new beginnings.
I’m not very good at making or keeping New Year resolutions, superficial or profound (certainly not spiritual resolutions). But as the calendar year begins, we are called to look at Mary’s example, take stock of God’s faithfulness in our lives, and keep such thoughts in our hearts.
Bill Peatman writes from Napa. He may be reached at [email protected].