Advent builds with expectation—and after four weeks of Advent, four weeks of anticipation, four weeks of waiting, there’s a celebration, the celebration of the birth date of Jesus, the excitement of Christmas day.
The incarnation is special. There’s so much there to capture our imagination, so much mystery and beauty there, when God becomes human, when Mary lifts the screaming newborn Christ to her chest, when God in the flesh opens his eyes for the first time, blurry eyes shocked at the brightness of light.
Our best theology comes from the Bethlehem stable, with Mary exhausted from labor and delivery, with God jolted into a human life, the startle of being a body, a body like ours.
After all that excitement, after all that astonishment, after all that shock and wonder, after the celebration we go back to our routines, our schedules, our rituals of everyday—week after week, month after month, year after year of the everyday.
There’s a gap in our stories about Jesus. We don’t get to read what it was like for him to grow up, what he liked to eat, if he hated peas as much as I do, what kind of cake he wished for on his birthday. We don’t read about his first job, what it was like to work as a carpenter with his dad, what it was like to labor in the rock quarry outside of town. We don’t hear about his first encounter with death, when his friend died, or his grandmother. We don’t hear about that time he fell in love, and his first kiss, and the breakup. None of that is part of what we have in our Scriptures.
All we have is this episode here in the second chapter of Luke, where Jesus does what sounds like a very inconsiderate thing to his parents. He ditched them and stays at the temple, and when his parents find him, he snubs them by saying that they should have already known that he’d rather be in the temple than with them: “I was in my father’s house,” he says to Mary and Joseph—their house is not his house.
Then, at the end of this story, in chapter two, in the last verse, it says that Jesus grew—that’s all we know about his life between Christmas and thirty years old, when he starts his ministry. But Luke thinks it’s important for us to know that Jesus grew, because this is the third time he tells us. First in chapter 1: “The child grew,” it says, “and became strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80). Then in chapter 2, verse 40: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.” And now, in our passage: “And Jesus grew,” it says, “in wisdom and in years” (Luke 2:52). He grew and he grew and he grew.
Over time, over decades, Jesus learned how to be human, to grow into his body, to grow into his self, to learn the gift of time, just like all of us do—to figure out how to be part of this world, how to be good neighbors, to be friends, to learn how to love, over time, over decades.
Life is shot through with of joy, moments when beauty and grace overwhelm us and all we can say is “thank you”—to God, to a friend, to a sunflower, the ecstasy of joy, the elation of gratitude.
And then there’s the rest of life, all the waiting and growing—suffering the growing pains of life. And somehow we hold all of it together, the grace of incarnation in an anguished world.
The day after Christmas, yesterday, a man was murdered on my street, a couple blocks from my house. 54 years old. His name was Roger Anderson. I never met him, but I’ve probably waved to him, while he sat out on his porch. I found out about his death because I was on a run and saw the street crammed with police cars and neighbors, people weeping, collapsing in each other’s arms.
Andrea Gibson has a poem called “Birthday.” This year I think of it as a Christmas poem. Here’s the passage from the poem that came to mind yesterday, on my street: “Sometimes the scales themselves weigh far too much, the heaviness of forever balancing blue sky with red blood. We were all born on days when too many people died in terrible ways, but you still have to call it a birthday.”
Christ was born. It was still his birthday this week. The incarnation happened, even if it was so long ago, even if Roger Anderson was killed yesterday.
Christ grew into this world, a world that killed him.
On one of his Christmas albums, Sufjan Stevens’ includes “Ah, holy Jesus” as a Christmas hymn. “For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,” he sings, “thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation, thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.”
The incarnation doesn’t make all the violence go away. The birthday of Christ doesn’t end the anguish. Instead, we are given a child who undergoes the growing pains of life in this world, and promises that God will be with us as we grow into our lives—that Christ will be with us every step of the way, in the everyday routines, in the joys, and in the anguish.
And not only will Christ be with us, but he will send his friends along, to be with us, there with us through it all, to celebrate with us and to suffer, to be drawn into our joy and to comfort us in our trials. The incarnation is a declaration of solidarity—that God is with us, and, as a response, we are with each other, as we grow together, as Christ grows into us and we grow into one another. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you,” Paul says in Colossians, “Clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together.”
Christ dwells in us, and we are clothed with love, bound together in Christ’s love for the world, for this world, it’s this world that he loves, the world on my street where neighbors and family mourned the death of a loved one, the world where we struggle with how to build peaceful communities—and not only the world out there, the world outside, beyond us, but also the world in our homes, the world in our hearts, so close to us, the unsolvable troubles of our lives. God is there too. God loves that world too. This world, and all of us who call it home.
To be at home in God’s world—that’s what it means to grow into our humanity, to grow into our bodies, to grow into our lives, to grow like Jesus did. He grew in grace, it says.
To grow in grace is to see life awash in God’s gifts—to know our lives as gift, gifts we receive with every breath, and to recognize each other as gifts, to see a face as God’s likeness, a hand as a sign of God’s promise to be with us, with us as we are with each other.
To grow in grace is to learn the interpretation of signs, to be able to recognize signs of God in this world, despite the cruel violence, despite all the unresolved hurt, despite the anguish. Yet, all around, signs of God—the person in front of us as God’s declaration of love, as a sign that Christ is here, Emmanuel, God with us.