Have you ever been there for the birth of a child? Do you remember what it was like? Of course you do! The excitement, the nervousness, the sounds and smells of the birthing place. The overwhelming sense of joy when the child is born. Hearing those words, “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy”. For those of us who have had the privilege of being there, it is a peak experience, an event that fills us with joy and sends us running to tell the good news, by phone and email and Instagram, in words and in pictures, with friends, with family and even with total strangers.
Each year we use this image of the birth of a child as a way of capturing the joy and wonder of Christmas, the good news that was proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, the good news that was proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah so many years before that. For 2000 years we have proclaimed that the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the Word who was God, who became flesh and lived among us.
When you think about it, that’s a big claim. And there have of course been those who have disagreed with that claim over the centuries. One of the objections voiced by those who call themselves philosophers is this: Why would God, the almighty creator of the heavens and the earth, why would this God want to be born, choose to be born, as a tiny, vulnerable human being? Whatever it was that God hoped to achieve, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, whatever it was, if God really is God, couldn’t she have done it some other way, perhaps in a way that was a little more dignified, a little more, well, more God-like?
When I went back to school to study theology, I put this question to one of my professors at the university. “Why the incarnation?” I asked him. “Why did God become human in the person of Jesus and dwell on earth with us? Couldn’t God have just done things long-distance?” My professor was an older man, past retirement age but still teaching. And he looked at me with the experience and wisdom that comes from all those years, and he said quite simply, “Son, it matters where you put your body.”
“It matters where you put your body.” His words reminded me of wisdom once spoken by another sage named Woody Allen, who once said, “80% of life is just showing up”.
On that first Christmas Day, God showed up. God took on a human body and put that body on this earth and was born a babe in Bethlehem. Does that make a difference?
I think it does matter where you put your body. In fact, if I ever had any doubt, these past 21 months have confirmed it for me. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of being online. Now don’t get me wrong, I am deeply appreciative of the technology that allows us to continue to gather online, it’s great to be gathered with you online right now, and some meetings are definitely better on Zoom. But we know that something is missing – the body language, the hugs, the interaction, the little cues that we pick up from one other, the sharing of meals together. We are more than faces on a screen. Our bodies matter. Where we put our bodies matters.
When I was serving in the parish of Huntley in Carp, I took a group of high school students to Nicaragua to build a school in a rural area. We spent a year preparing for the trip, fundraising, learning about Nicaragua, learning about poverty, learning about development and social justice, and trying to figure out how all of this fits with our faith.
When we arrived in Nicaragua, we were met by Tom, the president of SchoolBox, the NGO that organized the school build and the trip. And during our initial briefing, Tom told us something very valuable. He said to us, “you think that you’ve come here to build a school, and you have. We’ll be spending a week in the village, on the construction site, and you’ll mix concrete and haul gravel and bend rebar and do all the hard work required to finish the school. But never forget, the main reason that you’re here is to love the kids of the village, the ones who will be going to that school. You’re here to care for them and to inspire those children.”
Because as Tom pointed out to me later that evening, the biggest challenge in rural Nicaragua isn’t the construction of schools; it’s motivating the children and their families to stay in school.
And so, during that week, our teenagers worked hard, but they also took time to play with the children of the village, to talk to them in fractured Spanish, to see their homes and play their games, and when we worked, the children of the village worked alongside us.
At the end of our trip, the school was built. On our last day, we gathered as a group, and we had a bit of a debriefing. And I said to the teens, during this past week we built a school. But you know, we could have done that long distance. We could have stayed in Canada, and sent the money here to Nicaragua, and SchoolBox could have hired local labourers to do all the work that we did. But instead we chose to come here, to show up, to put our bodies here and do it in the flesh. Did that make a difference?
And here’s what those nine teenagers told me.
They told me that being there had been our way of showing the Nicaraguans that we cared, that it was an expression of love and solidarity. They told me that it allowed them and the people of the village to get to know each other, to play, to work and to laugh together. They told me that we’d built trust together. They told me that they thought they had inspired the Nicaraguan children to continue with their schooling and that the Nicaraguan children had inspired our teens to make a difference with their lives. They told me that they had built relationships, relationships that were life-giving, relationships that changed the way they saw themselves and the world.
It matters where you put your body. It’s important to show up. I think that’s why the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us.
God showed up at Christmas.
God showed up so that we could see and know God. As John wrote, the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory. No one had ever seen God. But we have seen Jesus, the Word become flesh, the one who is the very image of God, and it is Jesus, God’s only Son, who has made God known.
God showed up so that our Creator could speak to us. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, for thousands of years, God had been trying to communicate with humanity, with our ancestors, in many and various ways with limited success. But in these days, God has done something new: God has spoken to us through a Son.
God speaks, in the way that we understand best, in human language, in word and action, with hugs and tears, with facial expressions and hand movements and bodily gestures.
But for speech to become communication, we have to hear, we have to listen, we have to receive what is said. And when we receive the Word, then we enter into relationship, a relationship that is life-giving, a relationship that is transformative, a relationship with one we know we can trust because the Word who was God cared enough to show up. To all who receive him, he gives power to become children of God.
Not long after I asked my professor about the Incarnation, I spent three months in the Seychelles Islands as an intern, as part of my theological training. To get ready for that posting, I took part in a 10 day orientation program in Toronto. That program was for people from all over North America who were going overseas to do various types of work for the church. It was a great group of people, from a lot of different backgrounds and with interesting stories to tell.
And I remember in particular one man from Texas. He was tall and slim, and he had the usual Texan accent, greeting us with a “Howdy y’all” when he entered the room. Now my Texan friend didn’t talk a lot, he was a fairly quiet guy. But as we were going through the sessions and exercises, whenever he did speak, he almost always said the same thing: “It’s all about relationship”. If we did a Bible study, invariably at some point he would chime in “Well, ya know, it’s all about relationship.” If we did a session on how to work in a culture we weren’t familiar with, he’d say, “Well, it’s all about relationship”. If we were getting training on issues of poverty or justice, same thing. And y’all know what? My Texan friend was always right.
And if he’d been with us this night, and he’d heard John’s gospel being read, and if we could ask him what he thought about it, I’m pretty sure I know what he would say. “It’s all about relationship.” And I’m pretty sure that he’d be right.
God became a human child so that we could become children of God. Christmas is as simple and as mysterious and as wonderful as that.
May this Christmas fill your hearts with peace and joy.
Christmas Eve 7pm, 2021, Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1:1-4; Jn 1:1-14