This guest contribution is written by Revd Pauline Shelton
‘‘God wants us to know that God loved us before God even made us, and this love has never diminished and never will. Powerful truths written by Mother Julian of Norwich, a remarkable woman who lived around 750 years ago in Norwich, England at a time of plague, riots and war with France — some things never change! That’s what God wants us to know — love, love and more love.
Really? You may be thinking. Where have you been this last year? Don’t you realise how awful2022 has been? There’s war in Ukraine — and a madman in the Kremlin. In Pakistan, floods devastated a third of the land. In Somalia, drought threatens the lives of millions, whilst rising sea-levels threaten the very existence of small oceanic countries. And closer to home, we have Covid, avian flu, and ‘normal’ winter flu, not to mention strikes — while figures show that the gap between rich and poor in Britain is wider than ever. In 2021, the richest 10% of households owned 44% of all wealth, while the poorest 50% owned just 9%. Scandalous. And more and more people are driven to food banks and to desperation.
But I refuse to despair. I won’t give way to the prevailing discourse that all is just getting worse and worse, even though that is how it often feels. Why? Well, it’s summed up in a verse at the start of John’s Gospel – ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’. The literal translation of that is, ‘The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us’. Only the very poorest live in tents. Tents are rarely permanent homes. They offer very little protection from the weather, or from thieves. God chose not only to become human, but to live among us in a marginal and vulnerable place — in temporary accommodation, in a tent on the edge of society.
And that’s summed up in the word ‘incarnation’. Incarnation means this extraordinary truth that God becomes human. And though at Christmas we may bless a crib or sing carols about mangers, shepherds and angels, the hope that I want to share with you isn’t just about a massive baby-fest. It’s not just confined to Bethlehem, and winter snows, stars and stables, beautiful and moving though all of that is.
Incarnation is about a change in the very heart and mind of God. It is about God deciding no longer to remain distant from the vulnerable world, the mess and fears and muddle and disease of the flawed and fallible people created and loved by their Maker. Instead, incarnation is about God deciding to enter into the midst of our tensions, our political injustices, our poverty and need — to enter into solidarity with wonderful and broken humanity.
It’s as if God said, ‘What if . . .?’
What if, instead of staying within the boundlessness of eternity, I accept the limitations of time and space?
What if, rather than be a disembodied Spirit, I limit myself to the physical body and intellectual capacity of a human being?
What if I come to earth not as the super-gifted child of an aristocratic family, but am parented by people who have no status, no secure home?
What if, rather than being educated at an exclusive fee-paying school, I learn about life through 30 years of anonymity?
What if, instead of being Superman, I make myself vulnerable — vulnerable to pain, to prejudice, to slander, to disease, and to the loss of credibility because of what I say and who I mix with?
What if, instead of choosing elite graduates from Oxford, Cambridge or Ivy League Universities I pick my companions from a random group of tradespeople, unskilled workers, social misfits — and at least one who is totally untrustworthy?
What if, rather than repeating safe cliches as a tele-evangelist, or from the safety of the pulpit six feet above contradiction, I talk face-to-face with real people about the forgotten and disregarded truths about life, faith and social justice in ways that will make religious people so angry that they’ll plot to kill me?
What if all I say and do to save the world by my life, my love and my example leads to hatred and rejection? And what if, rather than returning to the safety of heaven, I accept death, crucifixion — a sentence reserved for those whose love, honesty and integrity are too much for the powers-that-be to bear?
And what if, when I am dead, I don’t stay lying down?
What if that is what Christmas is really all about? And what if we see again this Christmas that Jesus comes among us, not to fix everything as if by magic, but to be in total solidarity with us. To be with us in all the messiness of our lives. To be part of the joys of today and tomorrow — and a part of the tensions and anxieties too. Jesus comes to be part of those, and to show us a truer way of being human. The incarnation is God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus the Christ. The one born as a baby who pitches his tent in our garden, our yard, our street, our lives — so that incarnation keeps on happening, love keeps on flowing down the ages, always abundant, always pouring from the very heart of God.
Our grief, our pains, our troubles, our addictions, our worries, our loneliness are not the end. Thanks to what starts at Christmas they can be the birth pains of something unspeakably better.
‘The Word became flesh and blood and pitched his tent among us.’
‘‘God wants us to know that God loved us before God even made us, and this love has never diminished and never will.’
May the life of the Christ-child given for this broken and beautiful world be born anew in us this Christmas and always.
With grateful thanks to Revd John Bell, Minister in The Church of Scotland and until recently a member of the Iona Community for his idea of the “What if..” within both Advent and Christmas.