School let out only yesterday afternoon (12/23), the end of a short but stress-filled week. Late yesterday in cloudy dark weather (I think the song "In the Bleak Midwinter" must have been written in Philadelphia), we packed the car so we could leave early the morning before Christmas to spend the special day with family in West Virginia.
Bleak midwinter continued on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, over icy Pittsburgh freeways, and into soot-covered week-old snow as we drove into the Ohio Valley. The aroma of Mom's ham in the oven did its best to overcome the effects of a rough week and the tense six-hour drive, but it was only partially successful. It wasn't Christmas yet.
My brother and his family arrived, and we ate Christmas Eve dinner together, Christmas candles on the table. Later, we exchanged and opened presents, grumbled that the church service wasn't starting until 11:00, Dad declaring that he'd be in bed long before that. To help us stay awake, we tried to figure out how to set up nephew Nate's new word processor. It wasn't Christmas yet.
Around 10:30, my mother insisted we start walking to church. (Only a five-minute walk, but "we don't want to go in late and make a scene like some people do!"). We walked across the field, which showed some brown grass through the patchy snow, and down First Street's dirty sidewalk to the church I grew up in. New snow was just beginning to spit from the dark sky.
The bright sanctuary lights made even the holiday greenery on the walls seem stark, and cruelly made faces of the older congregation seem drier and with more wrinkles than was necessary. After a few carols, the mandatory collection, and the preacher's meditation, we lit candles we had pick up from a basket when we entered. They were white and had small circular cardboard wax catchers around them.
The organ began "Silent Night", and someone snapped off the lights -- as well as reality, it seemed. With the same flip of the switch, the candles' glow gave flickering warmth to the decked walls, and all I could see were faces. Orange-cast faces seemed smooth, almost angelic. Although we have been taught that on this special night the Divine became Human, through these faces I got a glimpse of the Human as Divine. The angles sang, "...sleep in heavenly peace." When we walked out, a snow squall had covered the ground and streets with a fresh white coat. There were a few "Merry Christmas" exchanges, but we walked back to my folks' place in silence. It was already Christmas.
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The stimulus for this reflection came from a Christmas Eve selection in a series of Occasional Writings I did while a school principal. Those stimulated me to keep a daily diary, which became my Principal's Diary. (This Christmas Eve selection is found in the Resources section at the bottom.)
Last Christmas Eve at our midnight service, Fr Geoff Simpson talked about how the Christmas story has a number of "hooks" that grab people in different ways and bring them into the story. For some, the trails of Mary and Joseph and finding refuge in the stable seem a special sub plot. Perhaps the trek of the "kings" to find the blessed child grabs a few. Or the afraid but curious shepherds coming from the fields. Or Mary's powerful statement in the Magnificat of how God blesses her lowliness and shakes up the accepted order of the world captures our attention.
For me, there is another aspect that provides food for thought ... although it's not part of the written Christmas story. As Christians, we recognize Christmas as the moment of the Incarnation, the event where God became human. I believe that, and I acknowledge this truth each time I say the Apostles' or Nicene Creed. But, I wonder if there isn't a bit more to the Incarnation. Maybe there is some of the reverse ... that humans become divine.
A few years ago at a previous church, I wrote a series of Family Advent Devotions in which I elaborated on this theme of the human becoming divine. The series was called "W/Holy Human?" In those devotions I explored what it might mean to us if we examine our humanness in light of "The Word became flesh and lived among us." We look at Jesus and often see him mainly as divine. We see Jesus showing us what God is like. If we want to see God, look at Jesus. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9)
But, we can also look at Jesus and see the man. He was fully man; he was not God "acting" like a man. He was
"Jesus became what we are that he might make us what he is."
St. Athanasius (296-373),
Bishop of Alexandria He was not God pretending to be human, he was human! Dare we say, "A human ... just like us"? Related to this theme (in his book Ethics) Dietrich Bonhoeffer says:
"The (Church) Fathers were concerned to say that God, the Son, assumed human nature, not that God assumed a man. ... 'Human nature,' that is, the nature, essence, flesh of all people ... the embodiment of all human possibilities. ... Because Christmas is the physical acceptance of all human flesh by the gracious God, we must affirm that God's Son took human nature upon himself." And also: "Christ was not essentially a teacher, a lawgiver, but a human being, a real human being like us. ... because of the form of Christ, the form of the real human being is preserved, so that the real human being receives the form of Christ."
What can a person be? What can I be? Behold Jesus, the human, and see!
Perhaps too often we are so awed by Jesus' divinity that we don't perceive his full humanity. As such, we can miss much of the point of Jesus' life. Because of limitations we place on ourselves, we interpret many of the actions of Jesus as the result of his divinity rather than the result of the human potential.
We see Jesus "forgiving his enemies", but justify our unwillingness to do so by saying, "I'm only human!" We read of Jesus' indignation at the money changers in the temple, but excuse our lack of response to abuses in our day with, "I'm only human. What can one person do?"
Possibly, most of the time we have it all backwards. Maybe Jesus didn't do good IN SPITE OF his humanity; maybe he "did good works" BECAUSE of his humanity!
The disciples had a unique perspective. They saw the great works of Jesus performed by the same person who exhibited similar needs, hurts, and joys as they did -- a living, breathing human creature of the earth. Perhaps, during these Christmas days we can suspend some of our pictures of Jesus' divine nature and view him as flesh and blood -- as truly human. In so doing we might rid ourselves of "I'm only human!" and replace that limitation with the liberating celebration, "I am human indeed!"
The Incarnation. Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. I can only understand these things by understanding them as mystery. But, what is not a mystery to me is that through Jesus, I can be fully human ... and that full humanity carries a spark of the divine.
This Christmas, may the Incarnate Son of God help you and me understand what it means to be human ... fully human. Merry Christmas!