Poems and Theology for Christmas: Incarnation

IIn my recent article for Christianity Today, I invite Christians of all types of consider observing the 12 Days of Christmas as well as Advent. You can read “Always Advent and Never Christmas” here. Today is the fifth day of Christmas (I’m still waiting to receive my five golden rings), and I want to share a few thoughts on Christmas theology, as well as the writing of others that’s enriching my Christmas.

The central reality of Christmas—really, of Christianity—is the Incarnation: God with us. Humanity and divinity united, reconciled. Richard Crashaw captured its glory in these lines:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

When Jesus came to us as God Incarnate, he literally united heaven and earth. Our salvation occurs in His Incarnation—as it is what allows us to have union with Him. God with us. Christ in you, the hope of glory. There is a physical sense in which Christ is truly present in our members—and us in His. Shortly before Christmas, it was my turn to give the devotional in our staff meeting. I shared this poem by St. Symeon:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.

I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed.

We prayed at that meeting for a friend of mine whose body has been ravaged by cancer. Her reality has been devastating and dark. And yet this poem attests: every part of her is made whole and healed by Christ. This is the hope of the Incarnation.

On the last Sunday of Advent, I snuck into Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue to hear Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (the Christmas harp piece to rule them all) performed during their worship service. I don’t think I could ever be a Presbyterian, but the combination of this space, Britten’s stunning harp and choir piece, and, what was probably the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard (preached by one tiny, poetic lady pastor), I don’t know. I’m could maybe flinch on that.

She described the Incarnation as God’s protest against all material evil, his presence in our mess:

When the Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into our neighborhood, what we call incarnation, it is God’s protest song against all that tries to demean us—against all the voices that tell us we are not enough to be loved, to be worthy. Incarnation is God’s protest song against our own behavior with each other that seeks more to create walls and mistrust rather than to seek cooperation and peace. Incarnation is God’s protest song against the evil that does not think twice about massacring 130 kids in Pakistan for the so-called purpose of revenge. It is God’s protest song against the horror and tragedy that teenage kids will kill each other for a coat. It is God’s protest song against all that separates us from each other and attempts to separate us from God.

It was a revelation for me this year that Christmas is not primarily about the nativity. That historic moment is critical and beautiful; we should reflect on it, perhaps even sentimentally. More than that, though, we should dwell in the reality it points to, the reality that’s transforming everything: uniting heaven and earth, healing our bodies, standing in protest of the broken social structures we’re witnessing. Christmas—the gospel, really—can be summed up in three words: God with us. As Symeon says, “Do my words seem blasphemous? — / Then open your heart to Him / and let yourself receive the one / who is opening to you so deeply.”

(P.S. Don’t miss the two Christmas poems we published in The Behemoth: a whimsical, celebratory Gaudete and lovely original collect by our editor Mark Galli.)