Tuesday 24 December 2019
Smelling of glory and manure ©Sue Grimmett
The great theologian Karl Rahner said, “One of the most radical statements that Christianity dares to make is that God became material.”
Sometimes I think we have become so familiar with this story of the babe in the manger that we cease to be startled by the claims it makes. Christmas carols can sometimes lull us to a sleepy comfort with the idea of God creeping in amongst us one starry night.
And the way the story is told in the Gospel of Luke, it is clear that this arrival happens amidst a tyrannical effort to dominate the world without God. The opening lines tells us that a decree has gone out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Regardless of its dubious historic accuracy, the Gospel writer is telling us that here the emperor has become the God, and is casting a net of control over “all the world” in true totalitarian style. There is no room for things of heaven when the greatest earthly power has its boot firmly on the neck of all creation.
That there is no room on earth for this child is underlined in the gospel text. The Greek word for inn is “kataluma”: meaning an upper room where guests could stay. Joseph was returning to his home town, probably where there was extended family, but there were so many people in town that there was no upper room left for Mary to give birth to her child. Instead, they most likely needed to settle into the family’s main living area where animals also came to shelter in the night. In a world where God is pushed out by the Lordship of the emperor, the Saviour of the world has to be born amongst the animals and laid in a feeding trough.
For the moment of heaven coming to us, it is all such an earth bound story; the age-old picture of politics, poverty and military domination. Thank goodness we have, in this account of Luke’s, the angels to lift our sights beyond the limited view on the ground of threatened peoples in overcrowded towns and birth in the straw.
Of course, Christianity has done its best to lift the perspective from its ground ever since. As a religion it has focussed on the afterlife, prompting the expression “pie in the sky when you die.” All over the world are churches with tall spires and intimidating walls built on high hills. These are a metaphorical attempt to reach to heaven where God is seen to dwell; the imagery at play here is of the church providing a ladder of salvation up to God. Another expression, “Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use” also captures that sense that an over-spiritualising of religion has occurred which has separated the life in heaven from the life on earth.
Here is where we need a good dose of Christmas where the angels can continue to be for us the messengers they have always been in scripture: beings who represent the presence of God in heaven and on earth at the same time.
Angels mirror for us the almost but not-quiteness of our experience of the divine. Angels are not God, so they show us glory but remind us that there is always more, a greater transcendence. But they also reveal quite clearly the immanence of God, that God is present with us in this material world, perhaps never moreso than when they are messengers of the good news that a child has been given to us: divinity is wrapped in the form of a baby and lying in a manger. That infant in a feeding trough is the image of transcendence and immanence held together. But this is the very tension we can never and should never try to resolve because both must be present where there is faith. The squawling, helpless babe, smelling of both glory and manure, is an icon of what it means to believe in the good news of Christianity, and of what it means to be a Christian.
The theologian Paul Tillich captures what this radical move of incarnation really means when he proclaimed that God is “the ground of all being.” Human life may be finite, destined for dirt and death; but the ground and all that came from it and was connected to it, claimed Tillich, was drenched with the divine, the source of infinite holiness.1 God has come to dwell with us, that we may experience heaven on earth. But we need to remember that the whole creation has been charged with the glory of God from the get go. God in Jesus has entered the cosmos as gift, as pure grace, that we might learn to know and trust this divine presence on earth and experience life in its fullness.
This sacredness of matter and God as the source, the ground of all being, positions this arrival of the Word made flesh in terms that reveal clearly what it means to see the divine at work in the fragile connections of life that hold us all. Niels Gregersen refers to this as “Deep Incarnation” and describes the nativity in radically biological and cosmic terms;
Born of a woman (Gal. 4:4) and the Hebrew gene pool, Jesus of Nazareth was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth. The atoms comprising his body once belonged to other creatures.2
I think this way of expressing the incarnation gives us a sense of the extreme vulnerability of God who would submit to this kind of incorporation into the stuff of creation. But I think it also shows us the way to understand ourselves and the good news of that holy night. This Jesus, composed of star stuff and earth stuff, who came with scandalous particularity to live in a certain time, religion and culture before surrendering his life in love to God for the world, is able therefore to redeem all of creation. Matter matters, and is pregnant with the presence of God who by the Spirit draws all things to resurrection.
To see God as looking down at us at a distance from the heavens is to miss the glory of God all around us and to neglect the sacredness of our physical life and that of the earth which supports us. To see God only in the material world is to lose the vision of one who is greater than ourselves and able to draw us into greater life and possibility than we could imagine. To hold the tension between transcendence and immanence is to live the life of faith. We are also made of the dust of the earth and the dust of stars, aware of our unworthiness but also knowing that we, like Mary, are God-bearers, taking the presence of Christ into the world. The sacred and profane, the holy and mundane, the human and divine, coexist in the world and in us all. We too, smell of glory and manure. May we gaze again with wonder this Christmas at the fullness of God resting in a feed trough. And may we be astonished anew at this sacred life, where earth and heaven are held together, transforming us in love.
1 Diana Butler Bass, Grounded, (Harper Collins, NY, 2001), p18
2 Elizabeth Johnson C.S.J referencing the work of Niels Gregersen in Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished, VI International UNIFAS Conference. Rio de Janeiro, July 7 – 14, 2010