January 2, 2011
William G. Carter
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
In most of the major art galleries of the world, you will find the Christmas story depicted in art. Every famous painter has taken a crack at the scene. Rembrandt paints the child bathed in light with his mother close by and the shepherds standing in the shadows. Peter Paul Rubens has the exotic magi appearing near people with rosy cheeks. Henry Ossawa Tanner shows the young mother Mary listening curiously to an angel that resembles a beam of light.
Whether these images appear on the familiar Christmas card or as a painted canvas in a great museum, the birth of Jesus has been celebrated in all of its glory and simplicity.
In the 1500’s, here is how many European painters approached the scene, particularly those from Italy and the Netherlands. They would depict the infant Jesus in the manger or in his mother’s arms. Around him stood the humble shepherds, the worshipful magi, perhaps the singing angels. Yet the child’s face was the face of an adult. Even if the baby Jesus was shown to be a few hours old, his face is mature, his countenance is wise, his eyes are focused, and his gaze is all-knowing.
Some would declare this to be a mixed message: the infant looks old. Ancient wisdom is revealed in a baby’s face. And we know what the artists are trying to do: they are trying as they might to portray the Incarnation. The eternal God comes to us as a human child. Power chooses vulnerability, weakness reveals wisdom. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” sings the Gospel of John, “and we have seen his glory.”
Christmas presents us with this great paradox. In every age, people try to understand it, even if they end up shaving it down. We sing “Away in a Manger,” with each verse addressed to the Lord Jesus. Theologically that is exactly right. The child born to Mary is already the Ruler of the Universe. Yet the paradox is that the Ruler is a newborn male Jewish child; he is the Little Lord Jesus. And when the song declares “no crying he makes,” we don’t believe it. That was the heresy of Apollinarianism, the idea that Jesus was not completely human like the rest of us, and we dismissed that in 381 A.D.
It is our human tendency to make God’s Mystery smaller as a way of comprehending it. Maybe you noticed the Gospel of John does not explain the Incarnation. He sings it and just lets it be.
That’s hard for everybody to do. Some people like to keep the baby Jesus small and cuddly, and never let him grow up. When Charles Dickens portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past, he gives us a Perpetual Child. Some would similarly like to freeze the Lord Jesus in time.
Maybe you saw the scene in the movie “Talladega Nights.” Ricky Bobby, the famous NASCAR driver, gathers with his family at a table piled high with fast food. His wife shouts, “Supper’s ready! Come on, y’all. I’ve been slaving over this for hours.” With that, Ricky Bobby bows his head and leads the family in prayer:
“Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the South call you, Ja-ee-sus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always-delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to thank you for my family, my two beautiful, handsome sons Walker and Texas Ranger, and of course my red hot smoking wife Carly. Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father Chip, and we hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him, Dear Tiny Infant Jesus.”
His wife interrupts the prayer to say, “Hey Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him a baby. It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” But Ricky Bobby fires back, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
So he returns to his prayer: “Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, fat, balled-up fists . . .” His father-in-law can’t hold back and blurts back, “He was a man! He had a beard!”
But Ricky Bobby won’t give in: “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” He resumes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound-six-ounce Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly – but still omnipotent. We’d just like to thank you for all the races I’ve won. And due to the binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just want to say that PowerAde is delicious. Thank you for your power and grace, dear Baby God. Amen.”
Now, what would the writer of the Gospel of John have to say about that prayer? Assuming John would not skip the movie, he might give one thumb up for trying to hold the paradox: that the Christmas Child is the Lord of all. The Little One already has the power to set planets in their courses and to heal all that is broken.
But John would also give that prayer one thumb down simply for getting stuck – Jesus did grow up. In the words of the children’s carol we will sing, “Day by day, like us He grew.” In the Mystery of God’s self-restraint, we did not see all the powers all at once. The child lived a completely human life, growing for some thirty years in near-obscurity, until some people began to see him for who he was – and who he is. It was only then that we could look backwards and realize what we had missed all along – that God comes completely among us, and we did not see it.
In the lyrics of John’s great poem, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born…of God.”
Faith provides a birth within us, a birth that grows into new life. As Martin Luther preached creatively in one of his Christmas sermons,
Christ takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his (birth), that in it we might become pure and holy, as it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ… This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice…This is what is meant by Isaiah 9:6, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a son is given,” to us, to us, to us is born, and to us is given this child . . . See to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you.
That’s what the Gospel of John is inviting us to claim. When faith in Christ takes birth within us, it grows. Just like the Baby Jesus. Faith starts small, just as small as a mustard seed, but then it grows and grows until it takes over. As Christ is born within us, his love heals our crippled spirits. His peace swallows up our divisions. His justice grows until it overwhelms the unfairness of the world. His truth increases until all things are claimed by his grace. Which is to say: Jesus Christ is the Lord of all.
As the prophet foretold, “His authority shall grow continually,” and wherever he is, “there shall be endless peace” (Isaiah 9:7). That’s how we truly know where Christ has been born in us . . . and where he is received in the world. It is where people live under his authority and dwell in his peace. He is just that important.
One of the hot Christmas gadgets this year is a GPS system for churches to use. Perhaps you have one of those GPS systems for your car. It helps you travel from one place to the next, and you always know where you are. Well, this particular GPS system doesn’t go in your car. No, no, no – it comes ready to be installed in the Baby Jesus in a church’s outdoor crèche scene.
It seems that a lot of churches put a crèche scene on the front lawn, but the Baby Jesus does not stay in their manger. Who knows where he goes? Late at night some people might drop by to borrow him, or they take him for a drive in the country. But if you get one of these special Christmas GPS units, you can track down the Baby Jesus and put him back in the manger. No one will wonder if he wanders. There’s a security firm in New Jersey that makes these GPS units available free for churches.
I called one of my minister buddies. He has a downtown church. They put out a crèche scene every year, and Jesus keeps disappearing. I said, “Hey, you can contact these people in Jersey and get one of these GPS gadgets. That way, you can make sure that your Baby Jesus never gets snatched away.”
My friend laughed. He said, “My Jesus is the Lord of the Universe. He has a lot to do. Why should I expect him to stay in the manger?”
(c) William G. Carter
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