The Overwhelming Gift
The Overwhelming Gift: December 15, 2018
We were driving home one Advent night a few years ago, Emma was maybe three, and we passed a huge nativity scene all garishly lit up. Emma said, “There’s baby Jesus!” and Jack, all worldly at age seven, corrected, “that’s not really Jesus.” Trying to save the situation, I said, “True, but we celebrate Jesus’s birth because it’s God’s way of telling us that that we are God’s children too. Jesus is in everybody.” And Emma said, “Yeah! Even in Jack!”
Here’s what I’ve come to understand about Christmas: Incarnation is not important because it revealed God in Jesus; incarnation is important because it revealed Jesus in us. Each of us.
Every person is the temple, hosting the living and unconquerable Jesus. If we believe this Christmas message, then there’s nothing left but Love. Not the cheap, saccharine love that the world tries to sell us, with deeper and deeper discounts the closer we get to December 24th. But the difficult, penetrating, surrendering love that God gives us. And then demands that we give one another. Every other.
It is so hard. The Love that calls us to see Jesus in the immigrant, the refugee, the addict, the liar, the colluder, the timid, the reckless, the embezzler, the busy-body, the know-it-all, the criticizer.
Even in me. Even in you.
It’s a Love that places us squarely in the middle of suffering and doesn’t let us look away. That’s what Advent is: the season to prepare to receive the difficult gift of Love all over again. To resolve to do better this year at living fully into that Love for all God’s others.
Here’s what God sent my way at 4:30 am. Emma fell out of bed, and then her stomach hurt. I carried her back to bed and scooted in with her. It was pleasant to lie there in the dark, rubbing her back, whispering about Kindergarten. Even with the recent snow days, we haven’t had much one-on-one time. Plus, I worry more about Jack, so he gets more of my attention. We all take Emma’s cheerfulness for granted. She’s also generally busy. It’s rare to catch her in a mood to be still. But in the whispery dark she confessed that she used to eat cough drops “when I was little”. (What??) She explained how friendships are playing out among the Kindergarten girls. She told me how Jack tries to scare her. Soon we crossed her threshold of stillness.
We went to the kitchen for a peppermint to help with the tummy ache. We got back in bed to warm up. She decided to color, “because coloring’s quiet.” Whatever else my daughter is, it’s not quiet. She raked through her markers, shuffled various paper options, turned on the light, got the clipboard clipped just right. Bounced back onto the bed. I gave up.
I got coffee, lit a candle and settled in for my meditation time. Emma came to sit in my lap, and then fell asleep. I held her warm, sleep-heavy body. I prayed for this sweet child of mine. Was grateful for her, held her in the Light. Found beauty in the unwanted gift of a too-early morning.
Then, strangely, another person surfaced in my meditation. An elementary school teacher. One who has been the source of many a family drama, many a meltdown, many an argument. And her students have trouble with her, too. I imagined looking at her as God looks at her. I imagined her a sleep-heavy baby in her mother’s arms. And then in my arms. I felt her a beloved child of God. I held her, like a child, like God would hold her, in the Light.
I didn’t mean to do this. I didn’t want to do this. But I know that surrender in prayer brings change. Possibly for her, but definitely for me. It will change how I approach her, how I talk about her and how I talk to her. Prayer opens me to notice the beauty in her—it’s been there all along.
The first chapter of Luke’s gospel is about an angel appearing before the priest, Zechariah, who was “getting on in years”, and proclaiming that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and bear a child that would serve the Lord. He would make the people of God ready to receive the Lord. Zechariah was incredulous, doubtful, and for his faithlessness, struck dumb until his son, John, was born. Elizabeth, on the other hand, magnified the Lord. In her sixth month of pregnancy, a strangely similar event occurred to her cousin, Mary, who also believed that nothing is impossible with God.
When preganant Mary came to visit, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, leapt for joy, recognizing his Lord. He spent his entire life looking for Jesus in everyone he met. He spent his life preparing the people to recognize the Lord. The Lord that no one expected.
Advent is a time of taking stock, slowing down right as the world is convincing us to speed up. It’s a time to prepare to be surprised. A time to acknowledge that God has so much more in store for us—things we could never imagine.
In those videos, people often cry. It’s overwhelming, to be given an impossible gift. To look at something familiar and see so much more depth and beauty than you thought was there. In one video, the wife says, “Look at your kids’ eyes, Petie. They’re so pretty.” They’re so pretty he has to turn away, hand to mouth. The beauty, the gift of beauty, is overwhelming. The people say over and over, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God!” And it is prayer. I’m always struck by how happy everyone else is. How thrilled they are to give this gift. How much they want their loved one to experience life more fully.
There are so many layers of beauty. So much beauty right in front of us, right around us, all the time. Sometimes, another person provides the lens or the surgery through which we experience beauty that was always there. Sometimes, God is the implant that brings us to our senses—all of them. If we accept God’s radical, unearned Love, it opens our ears to hear in a new way. It opens our eyes to see in a new way. To experience what was always right in front of us. And God is so happy to give us this gift. Wanting so badly for us to experience life more fully.
This is the gift of the Child, the Christ. May we receive the gift like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds and wisemen and angels.
Like John the Baptist, always looking for the dove to descend. Looking into every face, looking for Jesus. May we prepare for the unexpected beauty. Prepare to receive the overwhelming gift of new hearing. Of new sight. Of radical, unearned Love.
And then give it away in God’s name.