In the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, Mary — the God-bearer — is depicted in a magnificent rose window above the altar. What strikes me is the size of Mary’s womb. Mary sits in this glorious stained-glass circle with outstretched arms and a womb so large it contains Jesus standing as a grown man, with his arms open wide. (Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p. 90)
Why the adult form of Jesus? After all, isn’t the Christmas story of Mary giving birth to the Son of Man about a baby Jesus? Was the artist of this stained glass window confusing metaphors?
Or, is there something more going on here worthy of our reflection?
After all, the historical Jesus was a man. But Christ was not his last name. “The Christ” includes the whole sweep of creation, and history joined with him, including you and me. We are members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ — this ‘mystical union’ we call it in our liturgy; Lutherans have sometimes called it the ‘invisible union’ of the church. Though we cannot claim to be the historical Jesus, obviously, we are, as Martin Luther described it, “little Christs”. We rightly believe in Jesus Christ — and both names — ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ — are important. We, like Mary, are Christ-bearers.
The celebration of Christmas is not merely a reverie about a baby born in Bethlehem. We do the Gospel of Jesus no favour when we make Jesus, the eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us. That may have been the role of Advent — the season of preparing the way of the Lord, when we consider how to make room for the birth of Jesus in our lives. A baby image can be helpful, to start with: A sign of grace that results in a sweet feeling of love.
But, eventually, we have to grow up. A mature Christianity, today, receives the risen Christ in his fullness. In relationship with Jesus the Christ, there come expectations. God wants to relate to us in our adulthood — expecting a full, free, responsible, participatory (Philippians 3:10), cooperative (Romans 8:28) and mature (Ephesians 4:13) adult response from us. When we pray, “Come, Christ Jesus”, we are asking for our own full birth and transformation. God, in our growth, wants ultimately to have an adult relationship with us.
When we read in the Gospel today that we have the power to become “children of God” (John 1:12) we are not relinquishing any responsibility and mature engagement with our faith; being a ‘child of God’, a wonderful expression, simply indicates that God is God and I am not; being a ‘child of God’ describes a quality of trust towards God, a trust that despite any delusion on my part that I can somehow earn God’s favour. Because God still has faith in me. God will never give up on me.
But Christ has come! And it is the risen Christ in 2014, not the historical baby, of two thousand years ago! (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.8-9)
In our lives we have the capability already born within us to have room for our transformation. We are all ‘pregnant’ with the possibility of new life, becoming more than we are, growing up into the fullness promised to us in Christ. For God is with us and in us.
So, what does that path to our transformation look like?
In a modern painting of the manger scene by German artist Beate Heinen, Mary and Joseph hover over their newborn baby boy Jesus. There are no angels in the painting, neither ox and donkey nor any of the people, who in our imagination usually gather around the crib – shepherds and kings; just the three of them: Mary, Joseph and the child lying in a manger, which looks conspicuously like a coffin. The scene is set in a cold cavern like stable from which a winding path leads to a distant hill with three crosses. (Thank you to Rev. Thomas Mertz for this illustration)
In all the glory and celebration of the Advent and Christmas season this image sticks out like a sore thumb. As we celebrate the renewed life and hope for our world in Christ, the reminder to suffering and death creates a stumbling block. And it always has.
“How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?”(Mark 9:12) The words though spoken by Jesus reflect a nagging question on the minds and in the hearts of the disciples: “How can it be that our salvation comes through the suffering of God?” A few years later Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the message about the cross is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1).
You will notice that halfway between the manger and the hill in Beate Heinen’s painting there are three wanderers – a reminiscence of Jesus meeting two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus; still struggling and pondering the same questions, facing the foolishness of the cross.
As all believers they travel the road between the Good News of Christmas, the pain of Good Friday and the Glory of Easter. And it is not until they gather around a table, worshipping and united in the breaking of bread, that in the presence of God all starts to fall into place and their questions come to rest (Luke 24:13-35).
“The word made flesh” is the proclamation of the festive celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The word made flesh! Meaning, that the Word — Jesus Christ — comes into our very ordinary humanity. But not the glory of humanity in all its splendour and might.
Rather, as the Christmas story reveals, Christ comes into the darkest night of our souls — in the outcast, rejected places. Christ comes into the impoverished places of our lives, and of humanity. As at least one theologian has put it (i.e. Gustavo Gutierrez), the Word made flesh should read: The Word made poor. That’s where Jesus is born and is at work. As Saint Paul put it, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
As bread is broken around the Holy Communion, Christ comes into the broken places in us and into the world where healing is needed. The circle in the Georgia Monastery stained glass reminds me of the trajectory of my life — the promise of completion, wholeness, fulfillment is there, in Christ Jesus. I am continually being re-made, transformed; I am growing, in Christ Jesus. And so are you.
The rest of the world wants to finish Christmas this morning. But the true Christmas message that begins today does not allow us to keep stuck in our baby Christianity. But invites us to grow up — no matter how young we are — in a maturing faith, deepening commitment, and active Christian witness to the newborn King!
May we grow into a fuller, deeper celebration of Christmas in the days to come, as we ponder the mystery of God’s incarnation, God entering our humanity.