Christmas is one week away. Earlier in Advent, I offered a reflection during Evening Prayer at my parish, but never posted the text. That said, I have been praying with it, and today I feel deeply struck by the notion that our God became human. Human in the form of an infant, born of a woman. This is something I have often pondered and prayed with, but for some reason, this year it is very powerful. With that, I will share what I spoke about to our group of “evening pray-ers” during that first week of Advent. I pray that whatever you await in the birth of Christ this year, your heart opens to it widely.
In 1960, John Howard Griffin undertook a journey as a white man in the American south, as both a journalist and as a person in search of the roots of racism in America.
With the support of his wife, he began a medical regime that included ultraviolet lamps and medication. One day Griffin looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of a black man. Shocked, but determined, he continued to press on.
Knowing that the only way to truly see what life was like for African Americans in the South, he literally begins to live as one. His experiences not only confirm his thoughts, but reveal a much more dire landscape of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice aimed at people of color.
Over time – a short period of time at that – he begins to feel a sense of defeat and depression. And his understanding of “the other” in the world is deepened. His desire to heal and reconcile the disparity between races, to restore dignity and unity to all humans drove him ever onward.
Eventually violent acts are made in response to his public experiment. Threats emerge against him and his family so the point that their safety is no longer assured. Things escalate, and in the end, he flees to Mexico with his family to escape the hatred aimed at him for revealing the ugly truth about race in America.
If this story sounds familiar to you it might be because you either read the book published in 1961, or saw the 1964 film, “Black Like Me.” I remember learning about it in school. (Also see: Black Like Me, 50 Years Later and Reading John Howard Griffin’s Challenging ‘Black Like Me.‘)
The author sought to enter a very different life than the one he knew, if for no other reason to enter the identity and suffering of another. He did not have to do this – he discerned and chose to do so. It is an interesting choice and one that brings to mind the season we now occupy – Advent.
There was no compelling imperative for God to take human form. Think about it, God is God and can do whatever God wishes. Not only did God not have to take human form, but God did not have to do so as a helpless newborn. Or even simply in the womb. Think about it – it is mind blowing.
Yet that is what we await in Advent, this God-with-us-Emmanuel.
What are we to make of this? How do we deepen our faith in this totally unprecedented (despite it occurring year after year) moment?
In the book, Griffin becomes the lowliest of people – using the deeply horrific standards of his – well, our’s actually, society and culture. Essentially, that is what God does, being born to Joseph and Mary. There are many lessons for us here.
The first seems to be that we are invited to literally slip into the skin of another, another who is in a lower station of life. God slips into humanity – base as it is, and becomes one with us. God understands our daily life, our joys and our sorrows, our losses and our triumphs, more than ever by being like one of us. Just as Griffin did with Black Americans.
Perhaps the first lesson of this is to enter the lives of other in a way that allows God to transform us. The reading from the prophet Isaiah that we heard tonight reinforces this kind of change. It says, that they “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…: That is very powerful imagery – the tools of war literally reshaped into tools of peace and good.
For us this might be a reminder that even the toughest metal can be reshaped from being a weapon of destruction and death into tool of cultivating peace and life.
Can we beat the swords of our hearts into peace by simply taking on the life of another?
God sent us Jesus in human form to show us the way, to help us to be so open to the “other” that we can be the other. And it is only in that way that true mercy and love might grow.
Second, God wants us to stop walking around living in a state of perpetual judgement, a condition I sadly know too well, but to be people with hearts that can be open with compassion for others. Especially those least like us and who seem to be the furthest from our lives. Because is that not the role of incarnation? The Christ as human in the flesh?
If we can truly walk around as the other, we begin to experience such a different way of being, such a different life. God did not start out with our petty preferences and prejudices, but God seemingly related to us in a new way because of the birth of Christ. What might we learn from doing the same?
Third, it would seem to me that to be fully loved and transformed by God, we have to make ourselves really, really small. That may be the hardest part of all, accepting that we are completely vulnerable and as helpless as a baby. No gun, no sword, no color of our own skin can change that. What we can can is this – how we experience incarnation this Christmas. Can each of us depend on God as if we are an infant? And can others depend upon us, not as God, but as those ready to love and serve them?
To do so will be to further the Kingdom, the Kingdom reborn and reborn, this Christmas and always. We have this Advent season to pray with this, to surrender, and to act. May we all use our times wisely this year.