O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
INCARNATION is always confusing.
Imagine yourself a devout and G-d-fearing man of the tribe of Judah, living in Roman-Occupied Israel, and wondering “How long, O L-rd, for ever?” You know the law, you know the prophets. When your family and community obligations allow, you go to the synagogue and pray. You make the annual trips to Jerusalem and offer sacrifice. You stand in the court of the Jews and see the glorious Levites and Cohanim offering their services before Ha Kadosh, Baruch Hu. And you know, in your heart, that He will come to save His people.
Outside your window one night a noisy crowd go past and, rising to investigate, you discover a group of shepherds. What news? Ma Khadosh, you ask. And you’re told of strange and wonderful things: angels and the redemption of Israel. You follow along. Your mind fills with strange ideas – angelic armies and flowing robes of gold, the Kingdom of David restored and your own tribe in glory. Rome at bay, justice done. You begin a Burucha, thanking G-d that He has counted you worthy to see this day.
And what? A stable? A cave? A manger? A baby!
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
God with us: can anything be more surprising?
It’s about time to prepare the annual sermons about the homeless, poverty-ridden family from Nazareth and something about the poor and outcast and marginalised. Those are sermons for people who don’t believe in the miracle of Emanuel. The Church offers a very different story: of Righteous Joseph chosen by the elders exactly because he was wealthy enough to care for the Holy Maiden and her Child, of a family that was not “homeless” or marginalised – but well connected to the Priestly tribes and families of Israel.
None of that is important however: it’s the localised version of the Divine Institution known in the secular world as the Pax Romana. God prepared the Whole World to receive Himself. The Jews knew – but didn’t guess – their time of preparation was over. The Romans did not know – but they were prepared anyway. The family from Nazareth had been prepared and knew the Truth.
And yet, a baby?
It would have been easier, I think, if the whole world had seen that night not a baby but the Infant of Prague: bejeweled and enrobed, radiant lighting, and, of course, a crown and orb. No one could doubt then, the miracle that had happened. That would look like God. But Incarnation calls for God to empty Himself, to take the form of a servant – a man like each of us. Incarnation takes away from us our dreams about “what we know God must really be like.” Incarnation – Revelation – God-With-Us requires us to say, “God is now not what I imagined, but what I see.” Incarnation requires that we give up our dreams of what we are certain God “really is” and accept God as He offers Himself. God with us means we can no longer project onto Him all our idols and vainglorious “gods and goddesses”. Rather we must take what we are given – or refuse Him outright. God is with us – even to the end of the age. It is we who must decide to walk away.
Incarnation means God is no longer in our little boxes. Incarnation does away with all the theology, all the philosophy that we might dream up and hold out as a model of God. Incarnation trims away the refuse and focuses all the dreams into one point, one here, one now.
We must say yes or no.
But a baby? Coming into the world just like each of us – Eyes closed, sleeping, crying, looking slightly like Winston Churchill, rolling in hay and surrounded by beasts. This, surely, is not the Holy One of Israel, the Giver of the Law, the Sun of Righteousness, the King of Glory. This is only a baby.
Or is it?
We have all waited so long, and each of us prepared in God’s own way, we are here. Gathered. Waiting.