Incarnation: God getting down

By Bill Lewellis

Anglican reflection on our relationship with God begins with Christmas … with God getting down. From there, we move toward the cross and resurrection. In many faith groups, reflection about our relationship with God begins with Good Friday and Easter… with fallen humanity that needs to be saved. I’m not suggesting that one way of getting at the mystery of our relationship with God is better than the other. How would I know? But they are different. And one surely works better for me: to begin not with “Am I saved?” but with “Have I gotten down?” Do I know people in low places?

   The basic Christmas truth is that Jesus is God getting down  and that God continues to touch us through flesh and blood. God uses many media of self disclosure. God touches us through family, relatives, friends, people we don’t even know, even unlikely persons? It’s all part of Incarnation. What story might you tell to celebrate God’s Incarnation … about one way, perhaps, that the word became flesh in your life? How have you touched others?

   Christmas is about a special moment of God’s intervention in history. Christian theology calls it the coming – the already but not yet coming – of the kingdom of God. Through his life and ministry, Jesus pointed to the coming of the kingdom of God. He used subversive speech -- parables and stories that subverted the ordinary, familiar, taken-for-granted world in which we live, while pointing to a strange, surprising world, a world turned upside down. And we know what happened to him.

   I recall years ago when I first heard the phrase altruistic donation. A new way to think about the coming of the kingdom. Altruistic donation. I knew what each word meant, but the phrase in its specialized context was new to me. It has to do with organ donors. Of the more than 100,000 living kidney donors in the U.S., less than one half of one percent were altruistic donors in the sense of people who gave their organs to strangers.

   One would think there might be more. Actually, there are. Many more people make the altruistic offer. Few altruistic donors, however, are accepted. Only about 5%, one of every 20 who make the offer. Most are rejected because altruistic donors must pass rigorous physical and mental health testing. That makes sense. But I do long for a world where altruistic donation of any sort would be the norm, where the presumption would not have to be that altruistic donors have mental health issues.

   That’s my take on the coming of the kingdom, a time when our world will be filled with altruistic donors, joining God to do what we can do to bring about right relationships. God has already gotten down to make the relationship between God and us right. Now, we need continually to get down to make relationships among ourselves right.

   In Episode #32 of The West Wing, a person on the president's staff, having undergone a traumatic event, is required to see a doctor of the American Trauma Victims Association. The session goes on all day and well into the night. The diagnosis is PTSD. Josh is worried that this will cause him to be let go from the president's staff. When Josh heads back to his office, he passes Leo, chief-of-staff and recovering alcoholic, who is sitting in the lobby. "How'd it go?" Leo asks. After some banter, Josh tells Leo what he has been trying to hide – fear about losing his job. Then Leo tells him a story.

   "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out."A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on."Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

   After that, Leo tells Josh not to worry about his job. "As long as I got a job, you got a job."

Now that’s a Christmas story. The mystery and the scandal of incarnation. The Word was made flesh. God getting down. “Are you stupid, God? Now we’re both down here.” That’s the Christmas story, not so much a story about Jesus as it is a story of God. God is in the hole with us.

   That’s what we discover at the manger.
That’s where Christianity begins, with God becoming one of us. Theologians call it the Incarnation. Not the birthday of Jesus – we don’t know when Jesus was born – but the Incarnation. That’s the mystery we contemplate with joy and wonder at the manger. 

Made flesh in the Wild Holy

By Bill Lewellis 

Once upon two millennia in the town of Nazareth lived a restless teenager named Jesus. His mother, Mary, took him to a monastery, to a monk who had a reputation as a good counselor. “Why are you so restless?” the monk asked. “God is troubling me,” Jesus answered. "I wonder about many things, about what I need to do. I don't yet know why, but I feel I will."

The monk suggested that Mary allow Jesus to stay for a while at the monastery where he eventually convinced Jesus that this was not the voice of God, that God would not trouble a young man with wild, though apparently holy, thoughts. The monk prevailed and returned Jesus to Mary. Jesus returned with Mary to Nazareth where he lived a relatively successful life as a carpenter -- and died of old age. End of story.

I heard the story some 30 years ago from an old friend, a perceptive journalist who heard a version of the story from the activist peacemaking Jesuit Daniel Berrigan.

Among my old files is a column, Mysterious Freedoms and a Wild Holy. My friend –– let’s call him Tom –– wrote it in 1978 for a Lehigh Valley newspaper. He admired Berrigan as a person whose social activism was grounded in a discipline of prayer and meditation.

Berrigan's boiled down position, Tom wrote, is that "Christian communities should stand as signs of contradiction in any age. If they don't, then either the kingdom promised is here in all its fulfillment or we're doing something wrong … We live at the intersection of very mysterious freedoms, God's and our own."

"Never did those freedoms brush against each other more intimately," Tom concluded, "than with the life of that wild holy that began 2,000 years ago in another Bethlehem.”

Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another disciplined activist, has said that spirituality is not about defining God or about self-improvement. Rather, it is about understanding the corporate life of Christianity in which all that we are given is for the sake of others.

We don't care about some things that are removed from our experience. We don't recognize other things that are close to us. We look them dead in the eye without seeing them. In both instances, something stands in the way: an idea, an ideology a learned prejudice, perhaps a belief, perhaps some stubbornness.

It's a matter of perspective and perception. If we push a few words together, GODISNOWHERE, some of us will first read "God is nowhere" while others will read "God is now here." Don't take it to heart. It's more fun than significant. Few of us see both realities at once.

We use filters to interpret both the near and far. We wear blinders to which we are blind. We put ourselves in the most secure prisons, those of our own making that we don’t now we’re in. We need to see things differently, beyond the filters, beyond our horizons, with the assion and peace born of integrity.

May we wonder, about things, about people, about how all we have been given – energy, talent, time, money – has been given for the sake of God's remedy, the kingdom. May we wonder about how God's remedy begins in our hearts, often with a troubling call. May we not tame God's call simply to live relatively successful lives before we die.

All the while, be sure that the God made flesh in the wild holy made us, like him, to wonder.

[Canon Bill Lewellis, a retired Episcopal priest, had been communication minister for the Diocese of Bethlehem, the 14-county Episcopal Church in northeastern Pennsylvania, for the past 24 years.]