Christmas isn’t just for Christmas anymore. The season eclipses Thanksgiving, swallows Advent whole, and comes to a sudden, grinding halt with Christmas Day.
Our family celebrates Christmas old school, starting with worship on Christmas Eve. Then we let the Incarnation linger in our hearts and permeate our gatherings through 12 days ending on Epiphany (January 6).
And I am beginning to understand something. Christmas is too great a mystery for one night or one day or even 12 days.
How can this great love — a God who fashions us from clay becomes clay so we might be like God — not claim every day of our lives for worship?
This God was not content to let Creation, to let his creatures, slowly waste away, to languish in suffering, without taking responsibility for our plight by joining us in our predicament. He came to exist at the margins as so many humans do, like we all do if we honestly grasp the human situation.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting from Nazi Germany, from a time when the inhumanity of men made giving up on humanity seem like the smart move, wrote:
God love humans beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. … God becomes human, a real human being. While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human.
Bonhoeffer says elsewhere that God takes on flesh to stand with men and women, as one of them, against all their accusers; that he assumes not only our fragile nature but our wrongs and regrets because he does not want to be the only perfect human at the expense of his imperfect sisters and brothers.
In the Incarnation, God shares our mortality “in every respect.” He stands squarely with humanity. Jesus rejects all human and demonic contempt for mankind, identifies himself with our worst crimes, surrenders his perfections that all men and women might participate in his divine goodness, stands in humanity’s place as the representative of all that is truly human for all time and forever.
By Christmas God defeats evil in our hearts, in the hearts of our neighbors and enemies (who are not his enemies), and conquers hell and the grave.
God does not stand outside our sufferings — cancer, torture, neglect, loneliness, anxiety, depression, abuse, pains of all sorts — but agonizes alongside his holy servant Job and with all who suffer, not only by his own human trials and temptations in the flesh, but by genuinely entering our hardships with us whenever we are afflicted.
How can gratitude for this gift be confined to a day or a season? Every moment — all our breaths — ought to resound with praise for this radical identification of God with us.
Mary is as baffled and quietly grateful as we are; that God chose her, that he sides with humanity permanently against all who oppose us, even our own hatred of ourselves.
At the end of a long season of bearing, at the end of a long journey, at the end of a long day and after excruciating pain, after holding him close to her heart, she stops bearing God for the first time since she said to Gabriel “let it be.”
She lays his bright flesh in a feed trough, swaddled against the anxiety of leaving her womb, nestled by wool and straw from the cold night’s sting.
The One who was God before all worlds lies there, as helpless against fragile existence as any of us, bound to the poverty of homelessness, a slave now to the elements he created, a hungering creature of necessity, soon to be an immigrant fleeing political terror, held aloft from the damp ground by wood that as God he holds together.
At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon said of this tightly wrapped bundle of dust, “the heaven of heavens cannot contain you.” Yet contained he was for nine months within this weary teenager, smeared with dirt, sweaty from her labor, catching her breath in time with this baby, the One who in the beginning breathed the stars into the astonished sky above them.
The beginning and end of the Christian revelation of God, of all that Jesus does for us and for our salvation, is this baby, this mother, this manger, this dust, this sweat, these halting breaths.
Come let us adore him. Repeat the sounding joy. Not only this week, not only this season, but with every breath.