"Love Incarnate," by Claire Helton
John 1:1-9, 14
In the beginning there was the Word; the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. The Word was present to God from the beginning. Through the Word all things came into being, and apart from the Word nothing came into being that has come into being. In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light – a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken. Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. He himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light – the true Light that illumines all humankind. And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory – the favor and position a parent gives an only child – filled with grace, filled with truth.
The weary travelers wind their way into town just as dusk begins to fall, grateful not to have to spend another night camped out along the way. Joseph has made this journey before, but never with Mary, and never with a pregnant Mary, at that. It has been slow going, to say the least. Certainly a test of their patience with one another, in this relationship that is still in its infancy, having shifted from a straightforward betrothal to something else entirely. This unthinkable turn of events has vaulted them both toward a level of vulnerability and intimacy far beyond what they had ever imagined they would know of each other as yet. It is a relationship fraught with misgivings and second thoughts, but also deep hope mingled with the fear as they face an uncertain future side by side.
And face it, they will. Now they have made the journey to Bethlehem, and Mary knows that they will not set out toward home until this child has been born. She can feel that her time has nearly come…which is why the innkeeper’s refusal is such a blow, why his reconsidering – and offering them even so much as a stable, is such an incredibly welcome relief.
Even so, they are tense with each other, this is not what either of them had in mind – and then, there are moments when the tension breaks and the laughter comes, when one looks into the eyes of the other and grumbles, “Your angel didn’t tell you where we could find a room either?” Perhaps it is the experience of having lived with, grown with this mystery that has enshrouded their entire relationship these last nine months that gives them the grace with one another to make it through the long, dark hours that lie ahead.
Joseph gathers what spare branches and twigs he can find to cobble together a fire, while Mary eases herself down onto a bale of hay, leans back, and releases a great sigh with her whole body. As she becomes aware of the aching in her swollen feet, she lifts them up one at a time and, after some maneuvering, finds that she can rest them on the ledge of the feeding trough and find some relief. The lone ox currently feeding at the other end does not bat an eye. This is going to be some night.
Her tired eyes land on her betrothed, still tending to the first flickering flames, this man without whom she might have been stoned months ago. Whatever reservations he must justifiably harbor in giving himself fully to her story, the compassion in his eyes has never wavered. He has been, to her, the very embodiment of love, choosing her wellbeing over his certainty every time.
And though Mary knows the road they face ahead will not be less difficult once the child has arrived – surely the rumors will only grow – she finds rest in the knowledge that this child has been formed in a crucible of self-giving love: both his and hers, love that has protected, love that has dreamed, love that has practiced courage, love that has walked slowly, faithfully beside and between them all the long dusty way to Bethlehem, love that has borne with them in the chaos. There will be hard days ahead, she has no doubt. But it is love that has carried them here, and it is in love that she will place her trust for tomorrow.
Between the warmth of the now crackling fire and the softness of the straw, Mary is able to find a few sweet hours of sleep before she is wakened by an aching, and a tightening, and a sacred sense that something new is about to begin.
Three decades have passed. Thirty-odd years, and night is falling once more. Again, a man with compassionate eyes is working to light a fire, though Joseph has long since died. This man, Simon Peter, stacks the wood just to give his hands something to do, to give his mind something to focus on other than the shock and grief that are still crashing over him in waves.
The others look on gratefully; they are gathered in secret out in the hills, for they do not dare to gather in any of the familiar places, in case the guards were to come looking. And out in the hills, in the dark of night, it is cold. The fire sparks to life and they gather in close around it.
It is evening on the seventh day. On the sixth day, all was lost. On the sixth day, as the hours had worn on under the darkening sky and their worst fears became their raw reality, they had found their way to each other because their bodies simply didn’t know what else to do, where else to go, who else could understand not just the loss of the one they had loved but the loss of the direction he gave, the path he had charted. They had stayed up most of the night, had wailed in grief, had stared blankly in shock, had cowered in fear for what came next. But then the morning came, and a new day had dawned, and somewhere deep within them was born the realization that life would go on, that their world would not be endless night from now on.
The day after Jesus died was a day of meaning-making, of trying to somehow make sense out of this chaos that threatened to swallow them whole. The numbness of the morning had given way to bickering in the afternoon, as they each began to give voice to their very different ideas about what the next steps should be. A few had wandered off on their own, some walking to leave their thoughts behind, others walking to find a place to work through them alone.
But, as the sun now sinks below the hills for the second time since Jesus breathed his last, they have each found their way back together again. And now they sit around this fire, and look into one another’s eyes, and allow themselves to wonder aloud what it all means – and more than that, to find wonder again, the kind of wonder he had inspired – wonder and awe at the miracles love can do.
Will his vision of the kingdom of God still bear out? Will his teachings still hold any weight if he’s not here to live them? These hard questions and so many more hang in the air. As they each take in the firelit faces of these brothers and sisters who have walked the road together, they become certain of one thing only: it is love that has carried them thus far – even here, even now – and it is in love that they will place their trust for tomorrow. Decisions about what comes next will have to be made, but in the meantime, if there is one thing he would have wanted from them in this moment, they can all agree, it is that they would commit themselves to carrying on in the kind of love he embodied – embodied all the way to a cross: a love that protects the vulnerable, a love that practices courage, a love that dares to dream, a love that bears with the chaos.
And it is love that carries them through the night, until, early on the first day of the week, a figure appears on the horizon. It is Mary of Magdala, and she is running as if something had broken loose in the world.
Friends, we are gathered here in the dark that becomes before the dawn, on the brink of so many new horizons. We wait here, at the end of the kind of year none of us could have dreamed up if we’d tried, holding out to see what it is that the new year will bring. We wait here at, it seems, the turning of the tide with the advent of these new vaccines, watching to see how their use will unfold – with hope, and with bated breath.
And then, in ways that are more familiar, we wait here, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, looking for hope, looking for peace, looking for joy, looking for love. We wait for the mystery of Christmas to arrive and to dwell among us, the mystery that is Love Incarnate. This mystery of incarnation is not so much a thing to be believed about Jesus as it is a thing to be experienced in our own bodies. The incarnation is a theological gift because it reminds us that none of the love and light and hope that Jesus offered means anything if it doesn’t mean it in our bodies, if it doesn’t take up residence in our flesh and bone, animating us, and drawing us into new life – the kind of life Jesus lived. May it be that we become the bearers of this love that protects, that practices courage, that dares to dream, that bears with the chaos; God knows we need it right now.
Friends, as we gather around our own imagined fire in the depth of this darkness before the dawn, may we find the grace to look into one another’s eyes and to see, and to know, that it is love that has carried us thus far. Let it be in love that we will place our trust for tomorrow. See now, on the horizon: a new day begins.