It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.
The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.
Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.
Loving the Spiritual Too Much
Because Christmas celebrates the Incarnation–a central event in God’s salvation of the world–it can be easy to overemphasize the theological and spiritual meaning of Christmas and ignore all the food, decorations, and gifts that are part of a traditional Christmas celebration. Though this seems very devout, it misses the meaning of the Incarnation.
When God became a man, he emphasized the goodness of the human body. When the Incarnated Second Person of the Trinity walked in the dust, washed with water, ate bread and meat, he underscored the goodness of material things, of the “stuff” that fills the world. So, to celebrate the Incarnation in any authentic sense requires the use of stuff to do so–otherwise we aren’t really honoring the Incarnation of Christ.
It is likely that few of my readers lean toward this mistake of overemphasizing the spiritual. But all of us commit a similar mistake when we ignore the goodness of the ordinary things that fill our lives. When we take common things for granted–things like bread and water, our families, our homes–we cannot be grateful for them. We only give thanks for that which we recognize as good.
Scott Cairns helps us understand this better in his poem “Imperative”:
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.
This poem emphasizes a truth that has been voiced by many Christians of the past: everything we have is a gift; all that he have we have been given by another. The poem also draws our attention to blessings we easily take for granted: being alive and not dead, having people love us in spite of our looks (and bad hygiene), even dental floss.
What do we have that we have not received? Nothing. All is gift. Let us give thanks for everything, and especially for things that are ordinary–for they are just like us.
Loving the Material Too Much
At Christmas we give gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a gift from God the Father to all mankind. But it is so easy for us to lose sight of this and become crass materialists, reducing Christmas to a time when we get lots of stuff. We often evaluate the success of Christmas by how much new stuff we get, and what percentage of that stuff is what we actually want.
When we do this, we overemphasize the material and ignore the spiritual. As a result, we dishonor the Incarnation of Christ. In his poem “Journey of the Magi”, T.S. Eliot writes about what the experience of the wise men may have been years after they traveled to see the Christ child. At the end of the poem, the wise man wonders,
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Notice the effect Jesus’ birth had on this wiseman? He is no longer content merely with the things of the world, though he has wealth, power, wisdom, and fame. He longs for something more, something that cannot be found in this world. He longs for Jesus.
Being Incarnational All Year Long
To truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas–and the rest of the year–we must keep the spiritual and the material in harmonic union, emphasizing neither at the expense of the other. And we do so in this way: first, we give thanks to God for the most ordinary blessings we can find–for the dirt in our driveway, the snow on the sidewalk, the high-pitched whine that in our more charitable moments we recognize as our sister’s voice. We need to give thanks for all of this, confessing our blindness and our ingratitude.
Then we try everyday to pay close attention to the things around us. We take a moment to smell the yeast in our dinner rolls. We pause in our piranha-like frenzy of getting things done to notice the gift we have in our children’s faces. We take time to give our siblings our full attention, looking for a way to incarnate our love to them.
We need to see the goodness in everything around us, especially the ordinary things that are so abundant. This is the material aspect of the Incarnation. But we also give thanks for all these things around us because they are gifts that point us to the One who gave them to us. This is the spiritual aspect of the Incarnation. By giving thanks both for the goodness of the world and for the giftedness of the world, we truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas time.
To conclude, I offer this incarnational toast from Robert Farrar Capon. May God be pleased to make it true of us this year:
May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys.
And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own. May you relish them indeed.
May we all sit long enough for reserve to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.