In the cold and the shadows of deep December, we gather for a celebration of light shining in the darkness.
We’ve passed through the season of longing and anticipation that is Advent and move toward that central event in the Christian theological imagination, incarnation: God’s desire to be a body.
And in the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The incarnation changes everything.”
But what has changed?
This year, my congregation has stood before the faces of these seven children who died in U.S. immigration custody in the last year.
Some were climate refugees, driven from home by drought. Others were fleeing violent conditions in their country of origin. Still others sought to join family members already in the U.S.
One of them received his very first pair of shoes in order to make the trek. Their faces have been present in our services of Holy Communion this year, and their eyes have stared out at passers-by on our Harvard Square lawn for many months.
To take incarnation seriously is to recognize these are the faces of Christ – children traversing borders in our own land today, not just a baby born 2,000 years ago.
So, what has changed in the sublime light of incarnation?
If the incarnation changes everything – if it changes anything – it must change us.
It must change the way we see and relate to bodies as sites of the sacred: bodies crossing borders and sitting in overcrowded cages, the overwhelmingly black and brown bodies warehoused in our prisons, the bodies of 331 transgender people killed by hate-motivated violence this year and even the co-constitutive body of the earth – interdependent in every way with our own flesh – with lungs ablaze in the Amazon rainforest and oceanic reservoirs of life choking on plastic refuse and fracked gas poisoning the web of life.
If we cannot see these bodies as the incarnation of the Divine in our midst today, the precarious life of a Jewish Palestinian baby born to a poor, unwed teenage mother fleeing the violence of an empire cannot be the object of our spiritual devotion. Our songs should be silenced, and our festivities ceased.
“The incarnation changes everything.” But what has changed? And will we be changed?
At Christmas, we will sing the message of incarnation in ancient words and imagery.
But the power of God’s desire for a body coming to fruition in the precarity of a baby and the peril of a peasant can get lost amid all the angels bright and glorious and the heralding trumpets blaring their joyful song.
But listen carefully to the music you sing this Christmas, and you’ll hear it.
Here are some of the words my congregation will sing on Christmas Eve:
- “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall…” (“Once in Royal David’s City”)
- “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; with the poor and mean and lowly lived on earth our Savior holy.” (“Light of Peace,” Joel Raney)
- “Comfort those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load. … For the herald’s voice is calling in the desert far and near, bidding us to make repentance since the realm of God is here.” (“Comfort, Comfort O My People,” Johannes Olearius)
To enjoy the beauty of Christmas shared among friends and neighbors is a genuine gift. We will all leave our places of worship at Christmas with our spirits buoyed by what we’ve experienced there.
But listen carefully: God’s desire to be a body, the presence of the Divine among us and within us, the at-once comforting and terrifying coming of God to dwell in our midst.
This is Christmas. It’s time we usher that subversive reality into the world once again.
And we pray that it changes everything.
Cody J. Sanders, Ph.D., is pastor to Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, MA, and American Baptist Chaplain to Harvard University. His books include “A Brief Guide to Ministry with LGBTQIA Youth” and “Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Everyday Church.”