Note: This article first appeared in The Daily on December 25, 2011 under the headline “Words Made Flesh.” It is no longer extant, so I’ve republished it here.
As the Christmas season’s preparations and festivities built toward their crescendo today, I found myself thinking a lot about a poem by R.S. Thomas. An Anglican priest, a Welsh nationalist and an English poet, Thomas was a keen and sometimes rueful observer of country life and of his own awkward place in it. His poem “Nativity” ends on a surprising image:
The moon is born
and a child is born
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.
They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.
Life takes on a distinctly broken-glass quality at this time of year. As we work out complicated travel arrangements, curate pictures and events for holiday cards, tax ourselves to find a decent gift for an in-law, and perhaps spare some extra time or money for the charitable cause or faith community that is nearest our hearts, it’s not that difficult to start feeling fragmented. It’s a frustrating feeling, but it testifies to a certain expansiveness in life — to the truth that our lives are bigger than the daily ambit of comings and goings.
Maybe that’s why my most vivid Christmas Day memories involve travel: flying to Florida, barreling up I-90 to Wisconsin in a borrowed car after my first Christmas Eve as a student pastor, boarding an airplane to Kansas with our infant son, still smelling of incense from morning Mass. However vexing the airport or tedious the journey, it feels like a small effort to piece the fragments back together. We go home, or somewhere that used to be home, knitting up the distances of years and miles that placed us where we happen to be.
In church on Christmas Day, Christians hear the famous passage that opens the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.” Unfortunately, “lived” is a pretty domesticated translation of the original Greek verb, which means literally “pitched his tent.” I like to think of the verse, and of the birth of Jesus, that way: The Word pitched his tent with us. A tent, of course, is a portable dwelling. It’s for people who need to move around, people whose lives carry them from place to place. It’s not the image of a divine substance congealing in one particular home, but of the Word of God joining an itinerant humanity in our life of change and loss.
The Christmas reading is the classic text for what Christians call the doctrine of the Incarnation. In the time in which John wrote, people often speculated about a divine Word that shaped and animated the whole universe. The peculiar Christian move was to say that this Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This was a difficult and controversial idea at the time (as it still is today), but it’s at the heart of how I account for my faith. With all due respect to the power of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, I do not believe, as the title of a book I recently saw in a church library suggests, that he was “Born to Die.” Rather, the Incarnation itself dignifies human nature and human life, even in our spasms of cruelty, our estrangement from God and each other and our disjointed, broken-glass existence. The fourth century theologian Athanasius, in his treatise on Incarnation, explains that “the handiwork of God was in process of dissolution” through sin, and so the Word, though “it was not far from us before,” takes on our frail nature “to show loving-kindness upon us, and to visit us.” It’s like a great king staying in a large city, Athanasius says. ”Such a city is at all events held worthy of high honor, nor does any bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it.”
For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate. When we gather around our Nativity scenes with our Norwegian-looking Jesuses and when we consecrate and break and share little pieces of bread that bear the presence of Christ, I remember that the Word did not become beautiful. It became flesh and pitched its tent among us.
In this light, even the annual Christmas trudge takes on a different character. It’s our modest response to the verses in John’s Gospel, in which the words by which we profess our loyalty to those we know and love become the flesh of real presence. As we exchange gifts, share embraces, assemble meals, remember the dead, slip back into our old dialects or cross paths with our old selves, we may not feel entirely at home again. But that’s all right. Mary and Joseph were on the road too, to a place that neither called home. Christmas is about being abroad in the world. And on Christmas, any place can be home when we need it.