(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
There was blood on the straw of the manger. Blood, and that gray stuff that coats an infant's skin. More blood was splattered on the stable floor, mingling with the even-less-pleasant ejections that accompany a new life coming into the world.
Does that make you uncomfortable?
All around the birth of Jesus, crazy things are happening. There are apparitions of angels and prophecies and priests being struck dumb. Gobsmacked shepherds and befuddled astrologers. All of this strangeness, but what is remarkable about the birth itself is how unremarkable it is. “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son.”
I was there for all three of my children's births. They were all different, running from the relatively easy (my wife might disagree) to the clustered-in-an-operating-room-ready-for-emergency-surgery. Every birth was beautiful, viewed as a parent. But through a more objective lens, I can't imagine many things more humiliating or demeaning.
Birth is messy. Anyone who's been in the room for one can testify to this fact. It is painful. I'm operating on hearsay here, but judging by the bleeding nail marks on my wrist afterwards, I believe it. It's no cakewalk for the kid either, a struggling squeeze from comfort into light and coldness. The smells are a cocktail of the least-pleasant odors a body can produce. I realize there are certain romantics that would object, and I understand, but when you hold a wrinkled, grey, slime-coated child fresh from the womb... There's a reason there's usually a bath before the pictures are taken.
God experienced that.
Theologians talk about the “estate of humiliation” that God took upon Himself through Jesus. This humiliation includes the things we all might thing of – the arrest, the beatings, the crucifixion. He endured these indignities out of love for us to work our salvation. But God's humiliation didn't start with His death but with His birth.
None of this is to say that bodies are bad. My goodness, don't go away thinking that. God made our bodies, God made fetuses and birth canals to interact the way they do, and He called them very good. The incarnation, as much as anything else, is a testament to the fact that having a body is not evil – if it was, God could not have taken one.
Yet while the incarnation exalts our physical bodies, it is fundamentally demeaning to God. The thought that our God who needs nothing would have to claw for a breast for food; the thought that our God unchanging would suddenly move with the cycles of heartbeat and sleep and dirty diapers; the thought that our God everywhere present would be bounded by skin and fingertips and toes is a lowering we cannot grasp. If realizing the bigness of God makes it hard to imagine that He became a man, then appreciating our tinyness should do the same.
All of which should help us appreciate the sacrifice that was Christ's birth. As much as there is blood at the end of His life that speaks God's love, that blood at the start of it spoke the same. To save us God became us. He lowered Himself from the heavenly throne and stooped down, squeezing omnipotence into a swollen belly and then out again into light and coldness and the sweaty, tender embrace of she from whom He would have to drink life or die. All this for us His love has done, and through this lowering of Himself our love is won.
Such a short voyage for a god,
and you arrived in animal form so as not
to scorch us with your glory.
Your mask was an infant’s head on a limp stalk,
sticky eyes smeared blind,
limbs rendered useless in swaddle.
You came among beasts
as one, came into our care or its lack, came crying
as we all do, because the human frame
is a crucifix, each skeleton borne a lifetime.
Any wanting soul lain
prostrate on a floor to receive a pouring of sunlight
might–if still enough,
feel your cross buried in the flesh.
-Mary Karr, Descending Theology: Christ Human