In Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh. We celebrate that Jesus was born into the muck and ugliness of our fractured world. We remember that, in Jesus, God has walked among us, experiencing the joys and agonies of being human, in all its hungers and passions and struggles. We worship a God who became incarnate, who became more fully known to us in the life of a particular human living in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
What’s the significance of the incarnation, this peculiar Christian idea that God came to us in human form? More particularly, how does this understanding of an “embodied” God shape our understanding both of who God is and of what it means to be human?
This past Sunday, the youth and I were looking at statistics on the website of the American Baptist Churches USA that reminded us that 14 million children live in poverty in the United States and Puerto Rico. We sometimes romanticize the fact that Jesus was born to a poor young woman in an unremarkable village. But what does it mean to follow a Christ born into poverty when so many children are suffering, even here in the richest nation in the world?
We say that the church today is the living body of Christ. But just as Jesus’ own body was broken by the violence of the cross, our news is filled with the stories of other human bodies being broken, terrorized, and marginalized. I think sometimes it’s difficult for us to make the connections between the wounding of Jesus body and the bodies of those wounded by violence today. But when I heard that Michael Brown’s dead body was left lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, for four hours after he was killed, I couldn’t help thinking of how the Roman Empire left the bodies of the crucified hanging on display as a symbol of what would happen to those who defy its power. Just as the child of Mary was the victim of violence, far too many of our own children fall victim to violence, especially in communities of color. Following the One who was crucified demands that we share the outrage of those who have repeatedly been treated as if their lives, their bodies, and their children do not matter.
Several years ago, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, the church where I was worshipping took part in a unique Advent celebration. Rather than the traditional Christmas decorations, the front of the sanctuary was “decorated” to look like one of the many makeshift emergency shelters that had sprung up in the hurricane’s aftermath. Blue tarps were draped around the chancel, and several large plywood signs were spray-painted with words like “Help!” and “Save Us,” and “Need Water.” It was a powerful and deeply disturbing reminder that Jesus was not really born into the kind of bucolic pastoral scenes depicted in our nativity sets. He was born into a world of extreme human need, a world in which people were hungry and thirsty and marginalized and homeless and suffering. This is the world God loves.
God became one of us, took on this vulnerable human body, in order that we might know God’s love and might be empowered to live into the fullness of our humanity. And then God allowed Godself to be subjected to the worst our world of sin and death could deliver, in order to show us how these forces might be overcome through love and compassion. The poor child born in Bethlehem, the risen Christ who has unified us as his body, calls us to solidarity with all whose bodies are broken and marginalized,
so that we and our world might be made whole.