The holy occasion we celebrate tonight has several names:Christmas, from the words Christ plus Mass, or Eucharist. The Feast of the Nativity, from the Latin word nativitas, birth. And the Feast of the Incarnation – from the word Incarnate: to make flesh, to take on a body. That’s my favorite way to name this day, because it says why it matters. It’s not just a birth; it’s not just an occasion for worship; but a world-changing theological event: God became human.
The Carn- in incarnate is the same word as in chili con carne: Meat. The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became meat – in a newborn baby boy, the child of poor and ordinary parents – born in such awkward and inconvenient circumstances that his first cradle is an animal’s feeding trough.
The poet Amit Majmudar has a wonderful poem called Incarnation that invites us to imagine divinity taking human form in concrete anatomical detail:
“Inheart yourself, immensity. Immarrow,
Embone, enrib yourself… Enmeat
Yourself so we can rise onto our feet
A Lenten hymn from the Orthodox tradition says, “The Unapproachable became human, approachable by all, walking among us, and hearing from all, Alleluia.”
Immensity, eternity, mystery and grace, robed in flesh – the Transcendent and Immortal become finite and tangible. Hail the incarnate Deity! It’s a rich and wonderful paradox to ponder. But … why does it matter?
Western Christianity has put a lot of emphasis on the cross, on Jesus’ willingness to die to show us the depth of God’s love, as the great redemptive moment in the Christian story. But the Eastern churches, the Orthodox, in wisdom, see the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all as deeply interconnected. In her book Light upon Light, Sarah Arthur writes, “For Eastern churches, the Incarnation itself is what saves us; the Cross and Resurrection are merely part of a larger whole. When a holy God touched a corrupt humanity, God’s goodness reversed our corruption, restored us to holiness. We were like a basket of rotten apples coming into contact with one good apple: not only did the good apple retain its essential goodness, but it also reversed the decay of all the rest.” (13)
If thinking of humanity as a basket of rotten apples doesn’t sit well with you, some Orthodox theologians say that even if humankind hadn’t fallen so far from God’s dream for us – even if we hadn’t been mired in violence and need – God would STILL have become human, come to live among us – out of love.
Just to be closer to us. Just to show us how much we matter to the heart of the Divine. Just to remind us that we are made in God’s image, beloved children, always and forever. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, And this jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,… Is immortal diamond.”
One good apple restoring the whole rotten basket… the opposite of what we expect, what we’ve learned from our produce bins. The opposite, too, of so many toxic and fearful theologies, that seek to purify and punish their way to holiness.
What if we took seriously the idea that holiness is contagious? That divine grace is robust, not fragile? That in this birth on this long-ago night, something was accomplished, something begun, that changed reality – even if the ripples of that great change are still playing out 2000 years later? How would we live if we believed that good is contagious? That love wins? Has already won?
Let me tell you a story. Some of you remember the time of Apartheid, in South Africa. I remember hearing about it as a child and teen. Apartheid was a brutal system of racial segregation, involving minority rule by white South Africans – those of European descent – and sharply limited opportunities for work, freedom of movement, and political participation for black South Africans, those whose ancestors were native to the land.
A system so unjust cannot last forever. In the 1980s, other nations were increasingly pressuring the South African government to end apartheid, and a growing resistance movement within the country as well. There were bigger and bigger protests – some of them led by the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, a small, lively man with a ready smile named Desmond Tutu. Tutu was the first black African to hold that role in our sister church in South Africa – likewise the role of Archbishop of Capetown, which he held beginning in 1986.
The anti-apartheid protests were not welcomed by the government. Police used tear gas, water cannons, and bullets to disperse protesters. Many angry young men were killed in clashes with security forces; Tutu preached at some of their funerals, gathering crowds of thousands.
In August of 1989, in the face of harsh repression of protests, Tutu announced that he’d hold a church service instead – an Ecumenical Defiance Service, held at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Thousands of South Africans came to sing and pray for justice and freedom – and hundreds of police came too, surrounding the cathedral in a show of military intimidation.
When Archbishop Tutu began to preach, military police entered the cathedral, lining the walls, rifles in hand. I can’t even imagine that – speaking God’s words of hope and liberation, while looking out at armed men full of hate and fear. But Tutu knew that love wins. That holiness and goodness are contagious. At one point in his sermon, he came down from the pulpit and addressed the police directly.
He said, “You are very powerful, but you are not Gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you have already lost” – he tells the men holding big guns – “Since you have already lost, I invite you come and join the winning side. Come join the winning side.” Immediately, the congregation erupted into song and dance.
Tutu was arrested, after church. But he was right about the winning side. By 1992, Apartheid had ended. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president in an election for all South Africans.
The Feast of the Incarnation: When the God who was before Creation, who encompasses and knows all that is, when that God became flesh in a newborn baby boy. Why does it matter? Because Eternity, Immensity, Mystery, loves us enough to come and meet us – come be meat with us. Incarnate. Because it shows us that we are immortal diamond, and boundlessly beloved. Because it means that even in the face of terrible events and human cruelty, even when things seem most bitter and broken, we can face it with courage, with hope. Because Love wins. Love has already won.
The story about Tutu (with added details from other research):
Orthodox Lenten prayer quoted from here:
Majmudar’s poem and Arthur’s description of Eastern teaching about the Incarnation both come from Arthur’s book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014).