In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome. The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary. Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. –Kalends of Christmas Day, from the Mass at Midnight
It is hard to write about Advent or Christmas. It is hard to come up with something that has not already been said. What I am about to say has been said elsewhere and said better. But I will say it anyhow.
In Jesus, the Word does not only take flesh. The Word takes on a biography, a story with a thousand characters and details. It is the same litany of particulars that make me into Justin, or you into yourself.
For example, God takes on a lineage: ancestors with a legacy. Sometimes the legacy is proud. Those ancestors founded a nation. Sometimes it is injured. They were humiliated and exiled from their home.
God takes on a birthplace and an era, emerging into time in the hardscrabble hills of first-century Palestine, under the steel-toed boot of an exploitative foreign occupier. God takes on a face. The face is Middle Eastern and brown.
God takes on a mother. At first, she was that most stigmatized kind of mother, an unmarried teenager. God also takes on a stepfather, a guardian. At first, the guardian just wants to get out of there, because the whole thing is too much. But being a “just man,” he thinks better of it and stays, teaching God how to work with wood and tools and hands. So God grows up amid this family dynamic and learns from it, while working with wood and tools and hands.
God makes friends. They are blunt-spoken fishermen, dirt farmers, prostitutes, and outcasts. They are not lawyers, intelligentsia, or clergy.
The women in the group understand God better than the men. This should be as obvious to us as it was to God. The male Gospel writers admit as much when they list those who stayed at the foot of the cross (women), recount those who bolted away on Good Friday once their hillbilly accents were identified (men), and note how Mary Magdalene (a woman) was the first to see the risen Lord.
God takes on a religion. At times, this religion is high-minded in its pursuit of justice and peace. At other times, the religion is petty and small, lost in ritual and detail. God must sort through it all, as we ourselves do.
God takes on local people to defend: the poor, the women, the fishermen, everyone wedged under the occupying boot. God therefore takes on local enemies, who resent any disruption to their convenience. Some of them are the sort who today would endorse waterboarding. Others are the sort who today would make archbishop.
Knowing how dangerous these enemies are, knowing there is no time to waste, God works fast and travels light: three years from start to finish, no permanent residence, no possessions.
This collection of particulars determined everything about what God did in Jesus, what God meant in Jesus, and who God was in Jesus: all of the form, all of the substance, all of the impact. And as it was then, so it is now. As with Jesus, so with us.
We wait this Advent and Christmas. We wait for much of our lives. We wonder how God is once again to be born. The temptation for some of us, and I have experienced such temptation, might be to run off to some faraway place, to take some dramatic action that is inorganic or out of character, or just to keep waiting…for too long.
We don’t need to. Look again at your ancestors, your neighborhood, your family, your friends, your traditions, the local people who need you, the local overlords, the time ticking away on your own wristwatch. God is incarnating in the midst of the reality you are living right now. God will not incarnate anywhere else.