Last summer, late one evening, I was ironing a shirt. And suddenly my vision kind of fluttered and went dark for a second. So, I look up from my shirt and kind of blink my eyes. And nothing happens. So, I go back to ironing and a few seconds later, it happens again. This time, I’m shaking my head and rubbing my eyes, thinking – oh, my, this is the stroke my doctor warned me about. And I’m standing there like this and suddenly, I see it. A bat. A bat circling frantically around my ceiling.
I scream and run downstairs, scaring the cat half to death. And the bat is flying and diving and I’m totally freaked out. So, I’m thinking, how do I get this bat out of my house? And it comes to me! I turn off all the lights in the house, open up the back door and turn on the porch light, thinking the bat will follow the light. It probably took a good five minutes for it to occur to me that a) bats aren’t moths and b) bats are blind.
So, I start knocking around in the dark trying to find my cell phone. Then I remember again that the bat is blind, so I turn on a light, find my phone and call my husband. Where’s the bat, he says. It’s everywhere, I say. What are you doing, he says. I’m trying to avoid the bat, I say. He says, How? I say, By running around waving my arms. He says, Sit. Down. You are interfering with the bat’s sonar.
So, I huddle on the sofa, watching this albatross-sized bat flying all over. And I’m equally scared of two things. One, getting rabies. Two, guano.
And then, all of a sudden, the bat lands on the curtain rod over our living room window. And now that I can actually see him, I see that he’s just this tiny little gray thing. Tiny, no bigger than a sparrow. And suddenly, I feel really bad for this poor little bat who has been stuck in my house for who knows how long and obviously wants nothing more than to get back outside. Suddenly, I just wanted to help the bat, to do something to lead it out of my house and outside where it wanted to be.
And then I remembered a story I once heard describing the miracle of the incarnation. That’s the miracle we’re really celebrating at Christmas – the dreams of Joseph, the virgin birth, the angelic host singing praises before shepherds – these are all secondary to incarnation of God in Jesus Christ – God made flesh.
It’s an unlikely combination, humanity and divinity, and theologians have been trying to explain it for at least 1700 years. How did the incarnation happen? How did it really work? What did it accomplish?
Our lack of genuinely satisfying answers to these questions has been a stumbling block for many people, even for some of us who have been Christians most or all of our lives. It’s just such a far-fetched idea – the divine taking on human flesh and then suffering, terribly, in that flesh. No wonder we try to make rational sense of it.
But, my friends, this is something we can’t think our way through. The miracle of the incarnation is something that the heart receives. Because what really matters is not the how and the what of Jesus’ birth and life on earth, but why. Why did God bother? Why didn’t God just part the Red Sea again, send some fire down from heaven, make another donkey talk? (That’s in Numbers 22, if you want to look that one up.)
I’d like to share with you Lauren F. Winner’s understanding of the incarnation. Winner is the child of a lapsed Baptist and non-practicing Jew who, in her early twenties, converted, fully, to Orthodox Judaism. But during that process, she became intrigued by the Christian understanding of Immanuel – God with us – and eventually, she abandoned Judaism, lured by the incarnation like a moth to flame (and unlike a bat to a porch light.)
In her memoir, Girl Meets God, she writes:
Here is the thing about God. He is so big and so perfect that we can’t really understand Him. We can’t possess Him, or apprehend Him. Moses learned this when he climbed up Mount Sinai and saw that the radiance of God’s face would burn him up should he gaze upon it directly. But God so wants to be in relationship with us that He makes himself small, smaller than He really is, smaller and more humble than his infinite, perfect self, so that we might be able to get to Him, a little bit.
Being born a human was not the first time God made Himself small so that we could have access to Him. First He shrunk Himself when He revealed the Torah at Mount Sinai. He shrunk Himself into tiny Hebrew words, man’s finite language, so that we might get to Him that way. Then He shrunk Himself again, down to the size of a baby, down into manger finiteness.
Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinky wrote, “The whole concept of God taking on human shape, and all the liturgy and ritual around that, had simply never made any sense to me. That was because, I realized one wonderful day, it was so simple. For people with bodies, important things like love have to be embodied. That’s all. God had to be embodied, or else people with bodies would never in a trillion years understand about love.”
Never, in a trillion years.
So, the story that the bat reminded me of goes like this. A man owns a barn and one day a bird flies into his barn and can’t figure out how to get out. So, the guy opens up the barn doors and waits to see if the bird can navigate its way out. Nope, next day, the bird’s still there. So, he gets a broom and tries to shoo the bird in the right direction, but the bird just gets scared and hides. So the guy is thinking and thinking about how to free this little bird and he thinks to himself, “If I were a bird, I could lead this bird out of this dark old barn and into the sunlight.”
And friends, that’s what Immanuel – God with us – means. When Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” I suspect he was talking about getting small, meeting us at eye level, showing us the way himself, sharing in the life we live. Joining us right where we are, just as God created us – beloved beings crafted in God’s image and “in the flesh.”
As for the bat, after I stopped running around like a maniac, it eventually found its way out of our house and into the night, where it belongs. We, however, are meant to live in light.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
This Christmas, may God bless you and keep you. May the grace of Jesus Christ shine upon you. And may the Holy Spirit give you peace.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2013