Thursday, December 24, 2015

marked with Emmanuel

Christmas hath darkness 
Brighter than the blazing noon, 
Christmas hath a chillness 
Warmer than the heat of June, 
Christmas hath a beauty 
Lovelier than the world can show: 
--Christina Rossetti, "Christmas Eve"

 One day, this past spring, I stood outside my school and had a conversation with a small boy who was playing outside on the scaffolding. As we talked, I began to wonder: what if I was put here, in New York City, just for this very moment?

Encounters with strangers who have been Christ to me dot the course of my life, and--I think--change its course. These encounters often have the power to leave me with a word, a look, an impression that changes my image of the world.

So I wondered if this was another one of those moments: for this child, for me, for both of us. If this was an encounter that would change the course of our lives.

I was standing on the street because I had been late to a work event from choir. A very specific, peculiar, particular set of reasons had led me to stand there outside the school at that particular time. In an exercise of nostalgia, I looked back over my life, and I found myself charting a series of deliberate choices, and funny, strange, sad, seemingly unrelated events that had all led me precisely to that moment. Through the lens of this interaction, a story had been created where before there had only been a sequence of unrelated happenings.

I wondered if my entire life had been made for that one moment, that one conversation, those brief minutes on the sidewalk with this small child. And somehow that felt like enough.

It is incredible how our lives can be transformed through a narrative.

I wonder if that is how Mary felt at the foot of the cross, finally realizing: "Oh. This moment. This moment is not only what my entire life has led up to, but is providing me with a script of where to go and what to do next. This moment is explaining me to myself." Perhaps all the pondering in her heart since she had sat at the foot of the manger had finally paid off. Maybe it all became ruinously, gloriously clear to her in a single instant.

Or perhaps that moment, too, was simply another moment to ponder in her heart, to mull over, and try to make sense out of.


I am a fairly constant day-dreamer. In whatever spare time I find for independent, creative thought throughout the day, I spend a large part of it weaving imaginary worlds in my head. I anticipate many upcoming events of my life, and spin variations on how they unfold. I have been doing this for as long as I can remember, and, some days, I suspect it is slightly spiritually unhealthy. Day-dreaming seems to be not-living in the present. But day-dreaming is also is the way I tease out stories and spin dialogue in my head. So I foster the creative practice, while trying to allay spiritual costs.

But I am always struck by how the events that occur, when they do occur, never happen in any of the variations I had composed in my head. The events, as they occur in reality, are always tinged with a flavor of tangibility. They are real. And reality is marked with a certain sort of tone, a certain shade of certitude, that my imagination can't quite capture.

In my head, all my imagined worlds reek of me. They are lousy with me-ness. They are marked with my own imagination; and made in the image and likeness of myself. But events in reality are marked with the flair of their own Creator. They taste like God's doing. And one sure hallmark of God's doing, we have found, is unexpectedness.

They are like nothing we could conceive on our own. Our imaginations can conceive of how we would mold the universe.

But the story of the universe proves to us again and again that how we would mold the universe falls short of the creative scope that the narrative can weave.

In an onslaught of unexpected joys, I cannot help but think to myself: how much more real this is than whatever occurred inside my head. How much more true to God, is this story, and less true to myself. How much more Real, for being something outside of anything I could create. And how much more marked with love.

Perhaps this is why Christmas is so fantastic. For it is a story that is not marked with my own expectation or will, but is marked with Emmanuel. It is an outrageous idea, one I could not have day-dreamed all on my own: that God would come and be one with us. That He would not disguise Himself as a human, a bull, a swan, or a cloud of golden dust; but that He would empty Himself of all His grandeur, and become a crying, helpless infant crying--the Eternal Word lacking the power to say a word--wrapped in crude homespun cloth.


But once I understand that moment--that moment of the Eternal entering into the gross constraints of time--as the story through which to read my life; once I understand that encounter of Word and flesh as the narrative through which the world makes sense, I look at the world around me with new eyes.

It all seems to reek of Incarnation: the dog chasing the squirrel, with its owner tugging at the leash behind. The woman walking past me with her Starbucks cup, her eyes locking with mine. The men, covered in the dust of construction and sheetrock in an old brownstone. The families brunching in the dim light of the diner on a Sunday afternoon. The lady running past me in the cool dark of a Central Park morning, Natasha Bedingfield leaking from her iPod earbuds. The young man with round glasses an ocean away smiling at me through the fog of a frozen Skype connection. The old woman across the subway car smiling at me through the sea of backpacks and angry Wall Street Connecticut commuters. The man in the train, crying out for help for his son. The sausage and egg sandwich, hitting my stomach with warmth, as though I just swallowed a sun.

How can I look on any of these without awe? They are no longer just themselves, but epiphanies of an Incarnate God, dying to speak to me. The universe around me is stamped with God's God-y-ness. And each person is bursting with their own unique manifestation of Christ.

I love day dreaming and fantasies.
But I love the story the way that God has wrought it more, I think. For my stories are often snagged on the complexities of life. Life is filled with currents of dark motives and politicking. There is intrigue and a twisted story behind every decision, an entire backstage drama most of us do not get to see. I am fascinated by the terribly complicated web of history humans leave in their wake.

But Life is actually just radiantly simple. It is the truth that we encountered as young infants in simple illustrated picture Bibles and poorly painted crèche scenes. The entire mystery of the cosmos can be summed up in just this: the baby in the manger we have known since our childhood.

He provides the answers to our complex lives: and they are such simple answers. For He Himself is the answer to our constant questioning.

I would never have imagined a truth so simple and profound, an encounter so apparent and so mysterious that it transforms all of human history and my own.
I would never have expected Emmanuel.
I would never have dreamt it on my own, my imagination is too small, to full of me.

But this world. This story. This night.
It is bursting with Eternity. An Eternity that poured into our world 2,016 years ago.
How can Eternity be contained in just one moment? Just one night? Just one birth into the world?
And yet He was.

Ever since that night, all of creation seems to be shouting out His Incarnation. Incarnation is in my sister's face, and my father's laughter, and my mother's tired smile. It is in the baby crying in front of me, and the stranger offering me her seat on the subway, and the man hiding behind his book.

They are crying out Emmanuel.

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