I am reading Bobby Gross’ Living the Christian Year as my devotional guide this Advent and Christmas. I have loved his succinct yet comprehensive and clear yet provocative reflections on Christmas.
On page 65 he writes, “The incarnation is God’s great gift to us, or at least the beginning of the gift that culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For God so loved the world – so loved us – that he gave his only Son. God’s mind was to empty himself for us. God took on our poverty so that we might gain his riches. This is what the medieval Chrstians called the admirabile commercium, the wonderful exchange.”
Mr. Gross then quotes from Laurence Stookey [emphasis mine]; “ Christmas is the enfleshment of God, the humiliation of the Most High and divine participation in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited. Divinity takes on humanity, to restore the image of God implanted at creation but sullied by sin. Here is the great exchange Christmas ponders, that God became like us that we might become like God. God accepted death that the world might accept life.”
I am reading and writing this as I sit in a family cabin in the snowy mountains of Colorado. I feel keenly the paradox of joy and wonder being pulled against by a poverty and emptiness. So far this Christmas we have enjoyed sweet moments of worship, celebration, and loving fellowship. I have been blessed to reflect afresh at the beautiful mystery of this “wonderful exchange”. And yet also, there has been a strong sense of being totally immersed in a place that is “painful, ugly, frustrating, and limited.” Parts of our ‘vacation’ have been humiliating.
The past two years have cracked wide-open some old, painful, and difficult relational dynamics in both of our families. I have begun to more personally understand those who hate the holidays, those who feel betrayed by the glittering, sentimental, proclamations of Christmas cheer and the pressure to gather happily as a family when, in truth, their hearts and relationships are in tatters, far more decorated with pain than with joy. I have felt great trepidation and emotional exhaustion as I attempt to faithfully enter in to our family celebrations. I have wondered if ought to have stayed home, soaking ourselves in the quiet and rest that 12 days off at Christmas with no visitors can provide. It’s been a long, hard year. Have we been unfaithful by not taking a seemingly much-needed, long Sabbath rest?
But as my devotional leads me into renewed reflection on the incarnation, I see that to celebrate Christmas, the day of incarnation, it might indeed be our calling to follow Jesus and do likewise, to let ourselves be dunked into the painful, frustrating, exhausting mess.
This Christmas, we are living the incarnational paradox. We wonder and rejoice. We are refreshed by the beauty of our Lord, and yet we also answer the call to follow him and abide in a place that is lonely, cold, dark, broken and disorienting. We pray and ask that God would help us to love each other as he has loved us, sacrificially willing to set aside a rest and fullness that is rightfully ours in order to be with, love, and bring life to places that have been touched by sin and death. And we are humbled to know that others must seek the same incarnational grace to be with us. And as the incarnational life grows inside of us, we have hope that we will discover not only the heart-satisfying presence of Christ, but perhaps, in slow and new ways, also life and joy in our relationships with each other.