Our Lawns As Clashing Narratives
I have been thinking alot during this Christmas season about the difference between “presents” (gifts given) and “presence” (the nearness of another person). It is no secret that these two narratives fight for our allegiance this time of year. Driving through the suburbs the other evening this clash was on full display with the typical giant inflatable Santa Claus and plastic Nativity scenes sharing the same manicured front lawns. On one hand we have a story about a magical godlike figure who exists to bestow on us our every material wish – and on the other hand we have a story about GOD, our Creator, giving Himself and entering into the material realm as a newborn baby. But in the flurry of the holiday season, awash in a raging tide of gift boxes and shopping malls, we quickly forget that GOD’s incarnation is the central narrative of Christmas – and indeed the central narrative for our entire world.
Mr. Berry’s Love Incarnate
This narrative of our Creator incarnating in His Creation is clearly spoken of by agrarian writer and poet Wendell Berry in his essay titled ‘Health is Membership‘. In it he says:
“…I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”
Our Absence and GOD’s Presence
While Mr. Berry does not fully reveal what he means by “divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world” – the Scriptures clearly pickup where he leaves off. This Divine Love Incarnate is not merely an abstract force – it is a person – the uncreated Creator become flesh – Jesus of Nazareth. The Christmas story is about GOD becoming present when we had chosen, as a people – as the human race – to be absent – to abandon our realm of responsibility as royal stewards and caretakers of this earth. This is why GOD came. We have become absent – to Him, to one another, and to Creation. This chosen isolation is the foundation of our brokenness. Health (and holiness) is membership (as Jesus called it: the love of GOD and neighbor) – and dislocation is disease. The Christmas story is a rescue mission – of GOD finding our choice to be absent unacceptable – in His love He is pursuing us – He has become present.
Ancient Prophecies of Divine Presence
As this excerpt from Mr. Berry’s essay has been fermenting in my mind amidst Christmas tree decorating and singing carols – the ancient prophecies of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah have been jumping out to me. He speaks, from his time of a forthcoming Messiah:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14
In the gospel of Matthew it is clearly spelled out that this name Immanuel means ‘GOD with us’ and that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy (among many, many more prophecies) concerning a Messiah for both Israel and all the nations.
Habitation: The Single Purpose of Love
Christmas and Christianity are about presence. GOD is always moving towards us and calling us to move toward one another. Because love requires presence – the giving of one self. Scripture begins with GOD, in love, creating the world. And Scripture ends with all things being made new- with an end to the old order where we are separated from Him. The end of the story is GOD dwelling with us. Scripture goes from Creation to Incarnation to Habitation. From start to finish – the priority is on presence – as I said before, because love requires being actively present.
From Eden To the Stable and Beyond
The Christmas story is one paragraph in the long narrative of Scripture – but it is the moment on which the entire story hinges. GOD, our Creator who has waited patiently since Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, takes a radical step towards renewing the entire created order. This world that was thrown into chaos and dislocation by our rejection of His wise and loving care – He has now secretly invaded, taking on an embedded role as Mender of the World. As C.S. Lewis has written:
“Christianity agrees…that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” – (Mere Christianity. p.51)
What is most brilliant about GOD’s answer to restoring our world – of fully reintegrating our corner of the universe back into His kingdom – is that He does it by humble and patient means. His secret is to become as one of us and recapture His throne by becoming a child – and in turn a suffering servant. It is a conspiracy of epic proportions. Jesus – the Second Adam – begins a new creation in the shell of the old.
From Shallow Inspiration To Earth-shattering Revelation
I say all this for a reason. And maybe this is a long-winded way of saying it – but nonetheless, it should be said. We have forgotten the full narrative of our faith and in so doing have reduced the Christmas story to a sentimental inspiration for a toothless and shallow piety. This silent night we sing of is not the quiet peace of a sleeping baby – but it is Heaven and Earth gasping in astonishment at the Creator shedding His unlimited glory. It is the quiet of angels who after loudly announcing the birth of the True King stumble backwards in amazement that indeed something unexplainable and irreversible has been set in motion. GOD has come to us. And to the expansion of His kingdom there will be no end. Do we really believe this?
A Benediction: Behold Divine Love (a poem)
Behold divine love – incarnate, indwelling in the world
Infinite Creator come to us – GOD with us, a baby boy
His cry shakes the heavens – angels fall in awe at what GOD has done
Become a man?
To overturn the curse of human pride
To spill the final blood on our rebellion
To remake the world
To overthrow all governments – and hearts
To level the landscape – in a tide of uncreated love
Starlight summons us all
To bow low to Creation’s King
To the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth
To the Maker of New Heavens and New Earth
A new order birthed.