“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:39-45).
[The reflection below is derived from a journal entry dated December, 2016]:
I arrived back home in North Carolina yesterday to visit family en route to our new home in Washington State. I wasn’t certain I’d ever get to see my grandfather again. My mom has been taking care of him for the last fourteen years. He’s 95 (now 97, still kickin’). We came here a few months ago not knowing if he would make it through the night. But he seems to have found a second wind—for the thousandth time. So today I got to introduce him to my perfect daughter, Radley, his newest great granddaughter. As soon as he saw her he lit up with buckets of light and began to giggle. When we put her on his chest his laughter and light and life just spilled out all over the place. Mom and I got caught up in the moment. Everything did. We were laughing, they were laughing, the room was laughing, all the children of the earth and all the angels of heaven were laughing. The cosmos itself had cracked open in a fit of sidesplitting joy.
I suppose it was really just a very old man who has lost most of his mind amused by a very young girl who has yet to find most of hers. On the surface at least there wasn’t a shred of evidence of anything out of the ordinary, not even a speck of angel dust. And since humans typically forget to look beneath the surface, these aren’t the types of experiences we spend our lives pursuing or filmmakers spend millions of dollars trying to recreate. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t dramatic—and what even was funny? And yet, there we all were, swallowed up in the most naked and sincere laughter. It was somehow both forgettably unassuming and borderline apocalyptic. It was something like the Incarnation, the day the infinite God squeezed himself into everyday life and was “wrapped…in swaddling cloths and laid…in a manger” (Lk. 2:7). And it was exactly like every experience of God I’ve ever had.
I have personally never had an experience of God that was visible on the surface in any real measurable sense, like a person’s stump growing back into a leg or an Egyptian river turning into blood. But I did just two weeks ago hold out my hands and receive my daughter into this world. I did just this morning look down at her face and see her looking up at mine.
I fully believe God has and will continue at times to use Nile-sized miracles to reveal his unlimited power, but I do not believe that is what he is ordinarily most interested in revealing. I think he is still most interested in revealing himself through miracles the shape of the Incarnation, the truly God showing up in the truly human, like infants and old people, precisely because he wants us to pay attention to infants and old people, the least and the last—one of the only places we are ever really guaranteed to find him (Mt. 25:31-46). And that’s the only real surprising thing about God. No human has ever struggled to believe that God could be just as powerful as a god, but we have all struggled to believe that God could be just as powerful as a baby.
It was just this kind of disproportionality in the moment that suggested God was in the room. The two mismatched mothers-to-be, one too old to be a mother, the other too chaste to be a mother, standing belly against belly, giggling their way into a prophetic frenzy. It’s the kind of scene that can’t really be seen through the windowpane. You’ve got to enter into the miracle to see the miracle. You can’t hear the angels laughing until you start laughing. The waters only part when you step irreversibly into the flood (Josh. 3:11-16). It’s like the flag-wavers at church who are genuinely dancing in the Spirit while everyone else is genuinely distracted by the flags. The only way to ever start dancing in the Spirit is to start dancing.
By this point, Mary and Elizabeth and their unborn babies were all dancing around the room, “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “leaping for joy” (Lk. 1:41-44), while the whole world looks in through the glass. But from out here it still looks like little more than two women filled with child and a little too much wine. Until Mary opened her mouth and thunder came out (Lk. 1:46-55). There, with only a one-cousin-congregation, Mary stood up on the bar stool, raised her glass, and gave the most revolutionary speech in human history, the ‘Magnificat’, announcing that the Divine revolution had begun—in her belly. Granted, it was still in its embryonic form, a revolution that could still legally be aborted in our world, and sometimes it felt like little more than acid reflux, but it was here nonetheless. God was here. Emmanuel—in utero.
God refuses to be found in the places we insist on looking for him. The center of Israel’s temple and the top of Babylon’s tower both turned out to be empty. The farther away humans ascend from the world of the least and the lowest, the farther away they get from the world of the Most High God. The Incarnation reveals that there are a number of things humans care about that God doesn’t care about and there are a number of things God cares about that humans don’t care about, like infants and old people. Indeed, before “a Child to us [was] born” (Isa. 9:6), an unborn child to Mary was conceived. Surely God cared about at least that unborn Child, even before he was “viable.” And God made sure his mother was not sent to a nursing home just before he was laid in a tomb. Jesus loves the little children. Jesus cares about the old widow.
I once heard a wise man say that the health of a society can be measured largely by how its people treat the very young and the very old. The rapid emergence of abortion clinics and nursing homes in our society must say something about how we’re measuring up, or not. Not that nursing homes serve the same function as abortion clinics, but many who end up in nursing homes have been aborted all the same. At any rate, there is certainly something sickly about a society that struggles to find the value of life apart from its utility, its ability to produce and perform. There is something broken in a society that believes it owes nothing to the generation it depended on for life and feels justified in terminating the generation that depends on it for life. We are nurturing a social infrastructure that is effectively severing the life cycle at both ends, precisely where humans are most vulnerable, the least and the last, buffering our illusion of immortality, cultivating values that are not only inhumane but quite literally inhuman (cf. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death). We’re not taking care of ourselves. We are rejecting our former selves and rejecting our future selves, willfully neglecting the fact that we all were once the least and will all eventually join the last. And, at the end of the day, our refusal to live with “the least of these” is not only a rejection of our humanity, it is a rejection of our God (Mt. 25)—it is a rejection of Christmas.
And for that reason, for the sake of Christmas, the Church simply cannot accept the status quo. We must embrace our humanity the name of the Incarnation and thereby embrace our God. We must embrace all of human life as sacred, lest we lose all the sacredness of human life. God-with-us began with an Unborn and remains with us unto death–precisely so that we can remain with him unto Life.
Most of the time God-with-us feels more like us than it feels like God. Most of the time it feels exactly as miraculous as taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves, like changing the diapers of ancients and infants. Most of the time the Incarnation just feels very carnal. But then there are times, right in the middle of the mundane, right between the two women feeling each others bellies, right between the face of an old man and the helplessness of a little girl, the heavens opens up and the splendor of the living God fills the room as the waters cover the sea. And you can’t help but laugh, because it feels just like Christmas.