My youngest child Anton was born early one November morning. It was not an easy birth. We didn’t know it at the time, but his mother Judy was already experiencing the first symptoms of MS from which she later died, when Anton was 18. She was exhausted. I let her sleep for a couple of hours, and then, with the first light of dawn, she awoke, and immediately wanted to hold her baby, her first son.
We were all alone in a private room. I sat on the edge of the bed while Judy did what all mothers do, whether it’s the first baby, or the fourth or the eighth. Holding him, she opened up the receiving blanket and examined him head to foot. She caressed his ears, ran her fingers along his nose and chin. She fingered his chubby arms, with their crevices of baby fat. She took off the diaper and examined there too. Yes, it was really a boy! She rubbed her hands over his legs and held up his tiny feet, all scaly and red. It was a mother receiving, preening, and loving her newborn baby.
We were together alone for it seems a couple of hours, just the three of us. We looked at him; we talked about the miracle of it all. We prayed. We wondered what he would be like as he grew up, and whether it would be different raising a son after three daughters. Yes, by the way, it’s much easier.
We don’t know what Mary did that morning in the cave-like stable at Bethlehem. Was she cold? Was she afraid? Did she weep with worries about what they were going to do, this homeless couple, so far from family? The bible tells us just one thing about Mary on that morning of that birth that changed the world. All that the Bible tells us is that “she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
But I believe that with her pondering, like all mothers, she did what Judy did. She uncovered him, as much as she could in the cold, dank cave. She examined him from head to toe, she caressed his tiny body, and touched his perfect little fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn’t so amazing to her, and to Joseph, but to me the most amazing sight she laid her eyes on was the stub that protruded from his belly, the withering cord that had sustained his life in her womb, through which he received her nourishment, her very life. When you really think about it, this is the amazing thing. The child has a belly button.
This morning we read John’s version of the Christmas story, if you can call it that. It’s not much of a story. At first glance it seems more like a heavy theological treatise. But if you read it well, it sings along with the Christmas angels.
It begins, well it begins in the beginning; in the vast reaches of eternity, where God is all that exists. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
Already John confronts us with the mystery that stands at the heart of the church’s doctrine and worship, the plurality of God, the community of divine persons that is before all things, the Trinity. The splendid loving isolation of this divine community was not enough. God created a creation that was an extension of the love that is God’s very being. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:5)
But then, a few verses later, John moves us from the splendid far reaches of eternity to the soil of this planet, the flesh and bones of our mortal bodies. “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.”
At Bethlehem the Word, the logos, the origin and destiny of the whole creation came to us encased in our flesh. God comes to us as a baby. God comes into the world he created just the way we all come into the world. God has a bellybutton. You all have a bellybutton. It’s either an innie or an outie, but that doesn’t matter. What does it tell you? It says that you are part of the human family. There was an umbilical cord that bound you to your mother, and through it you were nourished. Her blood, her oxygen sustained your life, her antibodies protected you. When you were born the cord was cut, and you became an independent person, but the bellybutton reminds you that you are tied to her, and to the whole human family. You are not really independent.
In the incarnation God now has a bellybutton. He is also tied to the human race. Now this is crucial. The church really means that we are talking about God here. We’re not saying that some part of God, some spark of divinity, came to be with us in Jesus while the real God remained behind. God cannot be parted out like that. The three-personed God, the Holy Trinity is eternally one, and each person interpenetrates the other. As Jesus constantly reiterated, you cannot have the Son without the Father or the Father without the Son, and you can’t have either without the Holy Spirit.
So we must truly say that God was born at Bethlehem. The Godhead crowned as Mary labored, and one of the divine persons was expelled into the cold night air of the stable. God was lifted lovingly by human hands, cleaned and wrapped in rags. God was laid at Mary’s breast to suck with hunger and contentment. God slept while angels sang to shepherds in the field. God joined the human race.
Is that right? How can we ascribe that kind of weakness, that kind of frailty, that kind of vulnerability to Almighty God? The problem is not with God, but with our ideas about God. We think of God’s almightyness by our own standards of absolute power and total control. In other words, God is thought of, reduced, I should say, to our macho ideas of power: control, invulnerability, and domination. Real men don’t cry, we say. Real God’s don’t become babies.
There are basically two kinds of religion in the world. There’s the going-up kind and the coming-down kind. The going-up kind is marked by an above-us God who is holy and untouchable. But perhaps by supreme effort and spiritual discipline we can climb up to God. When you look closely, most every religion in the world is the going-up kind. It’s the quest for holiness, climbing up to God by following the rules, going through the rituals, making the pilgrimages here and there. It’s all going-up religion. As far as I can tell, there is only one coming-down religion, and that’s the one that gathers to celebrate a baby born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is the staggering uniqueness of the Christian faith. This is the good news. The word became flesh, God became human.
Christmas shows us that God’s power; God’s almightyness manifests its omnipotence precisely in its capacity to let go, to love, to be vulnerable. In creation God showed his power by moving over, by making room for a universe, and for a human image-bearer in the universe with a will of its own. God did not create to dominate, he created to let us dominate. He gave us dominion, even though we might screw it up. God did not create the world to run it like a despot, control it like a puppeteer, he moved over to make a place beside himself for the world he made. That’s the power of God. This is why Paul says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and the God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”. (I Cor. 1:22)
But there’s more. In the incarnation God is forever changed. At Christmas, God began a new relationship with the creation. Athanasius, that great theologian of the early church, went so far as to say that since the Son of God was not always incarnate in human flesh, the birth at Bethlehem marks an entirely new era in the life of God. God and humanity are now welded together in Jesus Christ so that you can’t have one without the other anymore.
When Christ was born at Bethlehem, an entirely new human being appeared. Humanity got a new start. To put it all too crassly, the gene pool of our fallen humanity was united with the very substance of divinity in Christ. God came to this earth and lived the authentic human life for all people. He died our death and rose again to live forever. Everything that happens to Christ happens to those who are joined to him in faith and baptism.
We are part of God’s family and He is part of ours. An indissoluble marriage of divinity and humanity has taken place when Jesus joined us as our brother. If God is now human we have hope. God can’t cast us off, God can’t turn his back, or He would be denying his only Son, his very self. Jesus Christ, our human brother, represents us all now in the divine community. That’s the astounding miracle of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas every year. Christ, our brother, bellybutton and all, is with God. Now nothing can separate us from God’s love, for in Jesus Christ, we join in the community of the holy trinity.
As Mary pondered that morning, as she fondled her newborn baby, she could hardly imagine all this. But as we ponder the same event this Christmas morning so many centuries later, we begin to touch the fringes of the mystery. It’s the mystery of God’s love come down to us, the mystery of the Word made flesh. It all began on that cold night in a stable at Bethlehem, when God became a human being, so that we human beings, hopelessly lost in sin, might truly share in the glory of God through Jesus Christ.
Charles Wesley captures the awesome truth in that beloved Christmas hymn we will sing,
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time, behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the God-head see; hail the incarnate deity,
pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.
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