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One December day when I was a fourth grade student in a fundamentalist, Reformed Christian day school in the 1970s, my teacher suggested that on Christmas morning we should awaken and silently sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. This was an appropriate way to begin the day: after all, it was Jesus’s birthday, she reminded us.
Me, ever earnest, obedient, and eager to please my teachers and parents, did just that: as my family and I descended the stairs to the living room to start opening the stacks of gifts beneath the tree, I silently sang the Happy Birthday song to Jesus. I was ten years old. I expected a mind-blowing experience, or at least an enormous sense of peace or satisfaction after the song. But instead I felt nothing, absolutely nothing, except silly and embarrassed. The act seemed ridiculous, the epitome of something over-promised and under-delivered. Why would my teacher have suggested such a thing for Christmas morning?
Now, not only do I have a much clearer understanding of my never-enough-and-always-falling- short attempts to please the adults around me, but I also have a clearer understanding of why that tiny, silent song on a December morning rang hollow in my head: singing “Happy Birthday” reduced Jesus’s birth to a singular event that happened on a particular day a couple of millennia ago. If that’s what I celebrate and expect to move me, expect to snap my head back in surprise or shake my head in wonder, of course I’ll feel little but emptiness.
Four or five decades removed from fourth grade, what startles me and snaps my head back in amazement is the love, hope, justice, and redemption continuously streaming from the Divine into the universe since the beginning of time and space. That—to me—is the real incarnation.
This is no attempt on my part to be Pollyanna-ish. We’ve all seen, heard, and experienced enough brokenness, evil, and injustice to know better than to gloss over that experience with pious words. As I write today, the local news on the TV behind me reports on police officer Kim Potter on trial for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Black man, Duante Wright, in nearby Brooklyn Center, and the deaths of dozens across the central U.S. from a night of violent tornadoes. Personally, I find myself again struggling with difficulties as large as relationships that seem damaged beyond repair and as small as my anger at the shopper who cut ahead of me in the checkout line at Aldi this morning.
And yet, since the divine creation of time and space, love, hope, justice, and redemption have streamed, continue to stream, and will stream into the universe.
And yet, this continued pouring forth of love, hope, justice, and redemption sustains us in ways we see and understand, as well as in ways we can never hope to understand.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 54:1-10) God addresses Israel as an old, barren, widowed woman. In the midst of her grief and desolation, God orders her to “burst into song” and “enlarge the site of [her] tent.”
Doesn’t this woman deserve some divine compassion instead of being told, in the midst of her despair, to sing and make a bigger tent? How is she to do that?
When my Jewish friends sing “Next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the service on Yom Kippur and the end of the Passover Seder, I think, “How can they do that?” They sing of the hope of next year celebrating in their holiest city and they sing of this in the face of millennia of hate and holocaust. How do they do that?
With the life-sustaining flow of divine love, mercy, hope, and peace into our world, we join them in stepping forward–sometimes confidently, but often in grief and desolation—in song as we make our tents bigger. The incarnation of divine love into every nook and cranny of our universe sustains and enables all of us, no matter our faith or lack of faith.
And when, during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, I am keenly reminded of the arrived, always-arriving, and arrival to come of divine love, hope, and justice into the universe, that’s when in my soul I drop to my knees in amazement and shake my head in wonder.