Well, I’d like to begin with faces. I’m remembering the face of an elderly man, named Kenny, who I visited often while he was dying of lymphoma. My mother once said to me, “Ethan, I don’t know how you can stand being in the hospital, where there is so much disease and death. Don’t you find it depressing?” “Well, Mom,” I said, “I often find it overwhelming, but not depressing, because one of the most deeply meaningful things I have ever done is to help Kenny die, and to die well.” As I held Kenny’s hand and looked into his face while the priest anointed him and administered last rites, I knew that Jesus was really present in that hospital room.
I am remembering the face of a homeless man at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, who sat next to me during an early morning Eucharist. Although he was initially embarrassed for being dirty and shabbily dressed, he accepted my outstretched hand during the intercessions and we prayed together hand in hand. I can still picture his smiling face, and I knew Jesus was really present in that pew.
I am remembering the face of a young transgender woman as we talked while waiting in line for the restroom at this year’s Outfest. She revealed that she had been hurt and damaged by religion, and yet she was eager to let me know that St. Clement’s presence gave her hope in religion. She gave me a big hug as we parted and I knew that Jesus was really present in that embrace.
One of the reasons that the Incarnation has been such an important event to Christians, and especially to Anglicans, is that the Word become flesh did not simply appear as a flash of light for an instant and then dissipate into the darkness. John declares “in him was life, and the life was the light of men: and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” The Word lived and moved among us, experiencing the joys and tribulations of brittle human existence, just as we do, interacting with Creation in a way that challenged and transformed it forever. The Word gave light and shape to the void in the beginning of Creation, and when it became enfleshed in Jesus, this Word gave light to a world overrun by the darkness of sin, cruelty, and hatred. And the light of Christ, of the Word Incarnate, illumines us still.
The challenge of the Incarnation, however, is that it goads us into seeing things in a new way. It is not simply recognition of the familiar, but a re-cognition of it that demonstrates that the familiar is actually quite different than we imagined. It calls into question “so-called” truths that we take for granted. Few people could detect God in the small babe in the manger, and few could detect God in Jesus the social critic, Jesus the rabble-rouser, Jesus the miraculous healer. And few could recognize God in Jesus the criminal nailed upon the hard wood of the cross. And yet, God was really present, really embodied, in all of these Jesuses. In so many ways, we are all Pharisees and Herods and Pilates unable to see in a face anything but what we’re accustomed to seeing. The same old same old.
The Incarnation is therefore not just a renewed or expanding understanding of who God is and how God works, but it is also a call to live in a way, that we can more resemble the face of Jesus through our own self-giving. This means learning to see beyond the surface of age, race, gender, and sexuality, embracing both those who have a roof over their heads and those who are homeless, giving equal dignity to those who are working and those who are currently unemployed, and joining hands with those you don’t like very much or identify with or understand. As God has given himself to us in the flesh of Jesus, so we are to give ourselves back to him in our own flesh, in our hands and feet and faces in the world. In our ordinary daily living, you and me.
But, more importantly, it is in our living as the body of Christ, as a community of believers, that Jesus will continue to be really present in the world, that the world will know him and receive him. Merry Christmas, my brothers and sisters.