In the beginning was the Word, says St. John, kicking off his brief Jesus biography with a bang. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
It might be the most preposterous hypothesis in the history of religious conjecture. No other religion ever dared to submit anything so outlandish, this idea that the Creator of All the Burning Suns and Spinning Worlds, the Eccentric Dramatist who threw this whole furred, finned, feathered, four-footed, floraled, fauna-ed miscellany of microbes, maples, moths, mice, moose, mules, mastadons, marsupials, mastiffs, monkeys, and Methodists across the cosmic stage in the first place came crawling into time at a cattle shed in Bethlehem far from Caesar’s lofty throne, with the soft, unfinished features of a human infant, a skull still translucent, and nothing to his name but the rags on his body and the milk in his mother’s breast.
At Bethlehem, Eternity is birthed into Time. Spirit shrugs over its shoulders a robe of human skin and blood and bone and sinew.
God had a name. God had a name, and it was Jesus. God had a face. God had a face and it was his. A rumor of illegitimacy prefaced his arrival. When he was born his parents were on the road, far from home, and there was no place for him in the inn. Delivered under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle and sheep, he was wrapped in rags and laid on hay in a feeding trough. His first worshipers were Bethlehem shepherds, the spurned outcasts of Palestinian society, and his last were a condemned criminal on a cross and the Roman centurion who did the crucifying.
God had a name. God had a face. God showed up. When God wanted to communicate most definitively with humanity, God didn’t send a book; God came as a person. God had tried multiple other ways to get God’s point across. God had tried speaking from afar with Father Abraham, saying “Go west, young man, go west.” God wrestled with Abraham’s grandson Jacob at the Jabbok Brook. God carved crude characters onto stone tablets for Moses at Sinai and danced with King David before the Ark of the Covenant and placed shocking oracles on the lips of brassy prophets and gave kosher codes and Sabbath laws and cryptic rituals to chief priests and scribes and Pharisees, but none of it worked.
And like President Obama with his Cuban foreign policy, God decides that when you’ve tried the same thing year after year after year and it just doesn’t work, it’s time to try something new, and like the people of Cuba who hit the lottery when the President changed his mind, so did we when God changed God’s mind.
So God showed up—in person. God didn’t just phone it in. I love that phrase: “He phoned it in.” Sometimes you say, “She mailed it in.” That’s what they say when a Hollywood mega-star like Matthew McConaughey or Reese Witherspoon, between critically acclaimed, Oscar-worthy roles in huge, expensive, blockbuster films like Interstellar or Wild, takes a break to show up—sort of—in a cheap, modest rom-com and gives us a listless, indifferent, barely-there performance. How can you kiss Jennifer Lopez and make it look like a chore? He phoned that one in, says the film critic.
Or like the New England Patriots, who will probably phone in their game against Buffalo this Sunday, having already clinched a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the playoffs. They’ll probably bench Tom Brady so he doesn’t get a concussion before the playoffs; they’ll let Rob Gronkowski sleepwalk a few sluggish pass routes without trying very hard.
A. Scott Berg recently wrote this wonderful biography of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, 1913-1921. I LOVE Woody. He eventually beat the Kaiser in World War I after a valiant attempt to keep America out of it; he finally got women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment; before that, he was Governor of New Jersey; before that, he was the most popular teacher at, and then President of, the College of New Jersey, which essentially became Princeton University on his watch. President of Princeton! And, most important of all, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a Presbyterian preacher’s kid. I LOVE Presbyterian preacher’s kids. For obvious reasons.
Did you know that Woodrow Wilson was the first President since John Adams in 1801 to deliver the State of the Union Address IN PERSON? The Constitution of the United States requires the President to provide an occasional appraisal of the State of the Union to Congress, but for 112 years, the President had ‘phoned in’ the State of the Union address by giving it to a clerk to read to Congress. The President never showed up for the State of the Union Address.
It was Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States, who began the practice. President Jefferson SAID he didn’t want to deliver the State of the Union Address in person lest it sound like the Fiat of a British Monarch, when in reality, President Jefferson didn’t want to deliver the speech in person because he was such a wretched public orator.
So for 112 years, the President of the United States, the Potentate of the Realm, ‘phoned in’ the State of the Union Address. And then Woodrow Wilson convenes both houses of Congress to give the speech IN PERSON.
Republicans and Democrats alike were horrified. A Republican from Kentucky said, “If Mr. Wilson comes to the Capitol to influence legislation, he will be more foolish than the donkey who swam the river to get a drink of water.” A Democrat from Mississippi said that the whole escapade seemed like a reversion to the pomposities and cavalcadings of the British throne.
Still, for the first time since John Adams in 1800, an American President rode a mile and a half from the White House to the Capitol. And when he arrived, he said that he wanted them to know that the President of the United States was a PERSON, not a Department of Government, just a human being cooperating with other human beings in common service. His speech lasted nine minutes, and was met with thunderous applause.
Can you imagine that? The Potentate of the Principalities, the Emperor of the Earth, the Royalty of the Realm, shows up IN PERSON to deliver the vital message. That’s what happened that first Christmas morning in Bethlehem.
God showed up. God had a face. God had a name, and it was Jesus, because he will save his people from themselves.
As the choir sang a few moments ago:
This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love…
For we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
For so a promise soon did run
That He’d redeem us with a Son.
And at this season of the year
Our blest Redeemer did appear
He here did live, and here did preach,
And many thousands He did teach.
And the whole world beheld his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
He showed us what divinity looks like, and he showed us what humanity should look like too. So maybe some Christmas Eve, before it’s too late, we’ll wake up and notice the lavish benediction we have all received. So greatly graced, maybe one day we will become gracious. So greatly loved, maybe one day we will greatly love, and greatly live.
A. Scott Berg, Wilson (The Berkley Publishing Group, 2013), pp. 291-293. I learned about this book from the excerpt sent to me by delanceyplace.com on November 14, 2014. delanceyplace.com/view_sresults.php?2657