Once, a friend labelled me a “walking theological reflection”. I think he meant it as a compliment but I’m still not sure. What he was referring to was my habit of taking anything in my ordinary life or something from the news or a photograph and spinning it into some kind theologically based observation. It wasn’t that I was great at it or in need of improvement but rather, it was something I did.
Seventeen years later, I’m still prone to do that. In fact, I was doing it this morning. It was one of those rare Sunday mornings where I could walk into church and I had nothing to do but sit and listen and be ministered to. I sat and reflected as two church members led the service inviting us to explore the perplexing, wearying and surprising nature of hope. Listening to them, I started to make all sorts of connections.
At the heart of Advent is the waiting for God to come as one of us. He doesn’t arrive as fully fledged saviour but rather as the one who will save, who will be the fulfilment of our hopes and dreams and who will teach us to live the way we were created to live. As I pondered this I started to wonder just how hard that would be for God to enter our world and be one of us. Would he magically adapt or would he struggle to get the hang of living like us? Maybe that is why he doesn’t make a significant impact on his community until he is in his thirties (a late starter for his time). Maybe all those years were spent just getting the hang of being us.
I know some people might be offended by that idea, that somehow it makes God look weak and limited.
We talk about God as being this perfect, adaptable, prepared for every situation entity and yet the bible often tells us of him being surprised. “Why are you hiding?” he asks in the garden. So why shouldn’t taking on flesh be as bewildering as his creation not following his basic induction day about living in Eden?
As I thought about this, my mind moved to a book I’ve been reading called Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains by Margot Page. The back of the book says
Margot and Anthony were ordinary parents. With two jobs and three kids, there was soccer and carpool and too much to do, and a little chronic stress about money. Then one night, following a day that was a regular amount of hectic, Margot had an idea: “I think we should move to Costa Rica.” Seven weeks later, there they were, jobless on top of a mountain, hours from the nearest paved road. This witty, insightful memoir of a family’s struggle to right itself in a leafy new world is about parenting and privilege, loneliness and connection. It’s about what happens when a stressed-out technology professional escapes with her loved ones to an idyllic mountaintop…and finds that even when everything changes, some things remain the same.
While this may appear to be a shameless plug for a friend’s really good book, it is deeper than that. Margot and her family leave behind every thing that is familiar and sustaining in order to immerse themselves in a new place and with a renewed purpose. This move turned out to be a costly exercise for all of them. And in my musings I wondered if the incarnation was a costly exercise for God too.
Philippians 2 hints at how this process of leaving everything behind is the core of Jesus’ incarnation and the nature of it. He wasn’t God in disguise. He was God in the flesh and it was different and humbling. We know that Jesus had troubles making himself understood, he struggled with getting his own family on board, he felt lonely and friendless, he was tired and sometimes thwarted. None of this is how it worked where he came from and yet it was the price of being one of us in order to save us.
Margot’s story reminds me of God’s story at Christmas. While we like to look forward to Christmas Day as the arrival day of a powerful and overthrowing king, it might impact us more profoundly if we saw it as the beginning of God’s own adventure as a person. That adventure of God will transform all those who associate with it and decide to make that story part of their own. By loving God and drawing his life to the centre of ours, we find that his adventure becomes our adventure.
What is even more amazing is that God in the flesh doesn’t finish his adventure, neatly folds up his man suit and spirits his way back to where he came from. No, Jesus returns to the Father and the Spirit as the crucified, resurrected Christ with nail and spear wounds intact. God carries his adventure back into his most precious community, the Trinity.
It is trendy at the moment for clergy to sigh as Christmas carols are sung because they are populist and simplistic ways of telling a much more complex story. But in doing that we miss the truth they tell: God became human so that humans might have the chance to live and thrive in a way they couldn’t manage themselves.
When we see Christmas without that adventure, we are impoverished.