Deborah Sokolove: Considering Incarnation

Sermon for December 31, 1995
Christmastide at Seekers Church
by Deborah Sokolove

Considering Incarnation

In the cycle of the liturgical year, these days between Christmas and Epiphany are known in English by the gloriously old-fashioned name of "Christmastide." A ‘tide’ used to mean simply a time, or a season, or an occurrence. Only later did it come to mean the daily rising and falling of the waters, which marked the times and seasons of a people who depended on the sea for fishing and for trade. Tidal movements are critical to those who live near the sea. In a less obvious way, the tides affect all of us, through their effects on global weather patterns. We are told that our bodies are mostly water, and it may even be that the pull of the moon that so powerfully attracts the ocean also has some tidal effect within our own body cells. It is certainly true that the cyclic motion associated with tides, as well as with solstice and with equinox, is a fundamental way of understanding time, in which the seasons and the festivals rhythmically recur.

At Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation, the very human birth of Jesus, whom we call the Christ. In these days of Christmastide, we consider his infancy, his miraculous early fulfillment of ancient prophecies. The passage in Matthew that was just read refers to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures regarding the Messiah, the Anointed One — in Greek, the Christ. The story of escape to and return from Egypt echoes the tale of Joseph going down into Egypt, and Moses leading the Israelites out again. It is also a foreshadowing of the connection between Jesus and the Passover sacrifice, which is made more explicit at the end of the Gospel. After the return from Egypt, Jesus’ family settles in Nazereth, in order to fulfill the prophecy that "He will be called a Nazorean." It is unclear exactly what that means, and no passage in the Hebrew Scriptures corresponds to it exactly. However, it may have been a current saying at the time the Gospel speaks of, and probably refers to an old custom of certain Holy Persons, or Nazarites, who set themselves apart by special vows.

These verses are just some of many examples of proof-texting, an appeal to the authority of tradition. By claiming that Jesus fulfilled various prophecies, even from earliest childhood, the writer of the Gospel tried to show that Jesus was the expected One. By connecting Jesus with the ancient stories that people had known since they were themselves little children, the Gospel writer connected him with their own stories.

But proof-texting can be dangerous business, and those who know the scriptures but don’t agree with you can find other meanings. When the Hebrew scriptures were written, ‘messiah’ meant simply ‘one who was anointed,’ or marked, with oil, as a sign of authority. Both priests and kings in Israel were so marked. Saul, David, Solomon, and other kings are referred to as "anointed ones." In the popular mind, this savior would have be of the royal House of David, which had ruled in Israel and Judea for over 400 years, and was still thought of as the only legitimate ruling family. By Jesus’ day, when the Israelite people had been through many cycles of oppression and redemption, and were currently being oppressed by the Roman empire, ‘messiah’ had come to mean for many a military or political leader who would usher in a new golden age. Some believed the new age would simply be one in which Israel would be autonomous, free of foreign rule; others believed that the end of time was near, and the Anointed One would lead an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil, in which the good — themselves — would necessarily win.

Others said then, and some still say, that the specific texts referred to in this Gospel reading do not, in their contexts, refer to the Messiah at all, but rather to Israel as a whole. Still others say that Jesus could not have been the Messiah, because even if some prophecies were fulfilled, the most important one — that Israel would be redeemed from slavery — was not. By the time of the writing of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jerusalem and the Temple at its heart had been destroyed, the people scattered. The end of time had not come, God did not visibly reign on earth.

And yet, today, we sing "Joy to the World." When we speak of the Christ, we speak not of an earthly conqueror, but of one Person of the Trinity, the Word made Flesh. At Christmastide we celebrate the Holy Child, the miracle and mystery of the Incarnation. The first Christmas that Glen and I were in Washington, we went to the National Cathedral early on Christmas Eve, to see the Mummers Pageant. The place was filled with families; little girls in velvet dresses and little boys in festive sweaters or sober suits; babies too young to know what was going on, wrapped in blankets; slightly older children too excited to sit in their places, losing their hats and gloves and trying their parents’ patience. Clowns and mummers patrolled the aisles. There was a giant crab, lurching sideways through the crowd; a huge green octopus, waving its tentacles; the usual complement of sheep and shepherds, camels and wise men. As the nativity story was told, a young woman dressed in blue robes walked down the center aisle of the nave, carrying a small baby, and all around her fell silent. In that moment, for the people present, that young woman was Mary, and the child in her arms was the infant Jesus, the Holy Child. And in that moment, I understood that each child, there and everywhere, like the child baptized here today, was and is the Holy Child, the promise, the hope of all humankind, the eternally reborn, Incarnate One.

But Jesus, we say, was special, unique. At this time of year, as well as at Easter and at Halloween, the pagan origins of this or that custom, or of the entire holiday itself, are regularly trotted out. This is often done to discredit the custom and discourage its use, as if the whole truth was contained in that fact. But the historical truth is that the Church did, indeed, appropriate customs wherever it went (as we were so beautifully reminded last week in answer to Samantha’s question about the connection of decorated trees to Christmas), and in giving them Christian interpretations, made them part of the Christian witness. It is part of the nature of human parents, of human communities, to see in their innocent children the hope of continuation, of a better future, of eternal life. Birth is always a miracle. As the Norse understandings of light and growth as expressed in the tree were taken to proclaim not just the natural world but the goodness of God, the nativity stories of Jesus work with the natural human tendency to hope. The nativity stories of Jesus proclaim that in this particular birth, hope is, in fact, fulfilled.

Yet, it is hard to say just how this is so. In I Corinthians, Paul says that Christ crucified is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. It is the Incarnation itself that is the scandal, both in Paul’s day and in our own. Our rational minds demand answers to the puzzle of how a human being can be God, or how God can be a human being. We struggle to understand, to explain to ourselves: How can one person be both fully human and fully divine? But the answer is not in the realm of the rational, reasonable, or provable. Rather, it is in the realm of experience, of relationship, of story. To say that Jesus was more than a very good and holy man, more than a good teacher, to say that Jesus is the Christ, is to say that he had some special connection with God that is generally unavailable to other people, and that he tried to share that connection with the people around him. This connection was understood by many to be a kind of anointing, a blessing, a marking out of Jesus as the Redeemer of his people. And while he was unsuccessful at that task of redeeming, according to all the ideas that people had about what he should do and be, he did succeed at that one important thing — connecting people each other, and with God.

Somehow, Jesus was able to share his connection with God with the men and women who followed him, who listened to his stories. After Jesus was crucified and buried, the connection continued, and those people began to say that Jesus was still with them, that he rose from the dead. They, themselves, felt that because of him, they were so closely connected with God that they, too, were able to share that connection with other people. And that connection continued to be shared, for almost two thousand years, so that we here today could share in it, too.

This idea of connection, though, looks at the mystery of the Incarnation from the human side. It is my attempt to answer that part of the question that asks how a human being can be, or approach, God. It is, in a sense, the story of the Resurrection, in which we who believe are, quite literally, the Risen Body of Christ, continuing to do Christ’s work in the world.

But what about the other piece of the question, the one that asks, how is it that God can be said to be human? What does it mean that the Word became flesh? How could God, who is infinite, beyond size or measure, holy, glorious, eternal, become small enough, humble enough, to be born on earth as a human being, as an infant that cries and needs its diaper changed and is carried on a donkey to Egypt? How could God do such a thing? Just thinking about it gives me goose bumps!

A few years ago, I saw a play called "A Place Called Wandering" which I later got Diane Willkens and David Lloyd to help me present here. You may remember it — it is the story of Cain after he kills his brother Abel, and God’s repeated attempts to get him to repent. Cain, who is really Every person, refuses to be reconciled, and spends his life in misery. At last, God invites Cain to dinner, and the bread that is offered is a part of God’s own Self, torn from God’s own Body.

That image told me more about God’s love for human beings, about God’s own self-sacrifice, than any rational, reasonable, provable explanation ever could. It told me that God is not a vengeful, wrathful being that demands that we make sacrifices in order to make God calm down when we are bad. Rather, that story told me, God will try anything, even becoming a human being, even self-sacrifice, to teach us stubborn, willful human beings how to love one another, and how to love God.

On this cold winter morning, a few days past the solstice, the daylight came a little earlier; tonight the sun will set a little later. The cycle of seasons and festivals pulls us forward, into the new year. At this time, it is common to reflect on the year just past, and to make resolutions for the year to come. We have already, collectively, made one promise: to nurture Caren into life in Christ, and to hold her and her family in love and care within this community. In her baptism, we have renewed our own covenant with Christ and with each other. In her baptism, we affirm the goodness of the world which God has made and blessed through God’s own participation in it.

For that is the lesson of the Incarnation, the message that the proof-texts carry, the Good News that Jesus preached: God is not in some distant place, not so far removed that our lives mean nothing, not so aloof that our prayers cannot be heard. The Good News is that God is connected to us, through our stories and our history, through our relationships with one another, through our love that remains even when those we love are far away in time or space. God is in the world. God’s belly rumbles when someone is hungry; God’s fingers freeze when anyone is cold. God’s hands mend broken bones, and broken hearts. God cries when we are hurt or sad. God laughs at our jokes. God applauds when we sing or dance or paint or recite poetry or write books. God says "Amen" when we pray. God moves the waters of the oceans and the tides within our cells. God is with us. Immanuel.

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