Psalm 80:1-7 / Hebrews 10:5-10 / Luke 2:1-5
By Dr. Phillip Aijian
Originally posted at Biola University’s Advent Project. Reposted here with permission from author.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Poetry: “Descending Theology: The Nativity” by Mary Karr
She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine
as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.
But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs
and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness—her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each
feeds the other.) Then he was left
in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.
SUBMISSION AND FULLNESS
Paul writes in Galatians, “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” “Fullness of time” has such a lovely, poetic sound. One imagines Paul looking back over salvation history with such rapture that he momentarily stops writing. Such rapture animates Luke’s juxtaposition of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s song. But Luke almost immediately undercuts these poetic salvos with a shift that displays God’s humor as well as providence. Who but the Lord would plan for the “fullness of time” to coincide with something so thoroughly bureaucratic, inconvenient, daunting, and mind-numbing as a census?
A census has no interest in the individual person save in their most reduced, statistical existence. One gets the sense of this compression in the way Luke’s account pivots from the theater of international politics to the personal dimensions of the holy family where Jesus is present but not yet born or named. The angelic visitations fill Mary and Joseph with joy as they consider the mysterious ways of God, but their minds may have also turned with less reverence to the ways of Caesar, whose imperial caprice God had chosen to employ. I imagine they felt variously vulnerable, exhausted, and bewildered—forced to submit to forces beyond their control or perception, and whose consequences remained uncertain. That God chooses Mary and Joseph endows them with unimaginable honor, but it does not deliver them from the hardships of human experience. The Incarnation does nothing to repeal the pain of pregnancy or reduce the ninety miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem.
The stained-glass window, Tree of Jesse, likewise reminds us that God’s providence invites our submission to forces and narratives whirling beyond our agency. Sometimes we barely know more than the role assigned to us for a particular season. Jesse lies supine at the bottom of window while a tree trunk emerges from his midsection. The image oddly but forcefully evokes pregnancy. The tree proceeds up the window, yielding further generations until Christ himself gloriously crowns the window and Jesse’s lineage. But Jesse turns away and his eyes remain closed. He cannot see the beauty or order of God’s plan. He cannot even see to his own son, David, let alone to the figure of Christ. The window invites us to suspect that he rather feels what he cannot see. Tree of Jesse depicts Jesse in fairly traditional ways. Between the 11th and 17th centuries, many artists depicted the genealogy of Christ in this way. Jesse often lies upon his back while from his belly grows a slender root that flowers through further generations of figures until Christ emerges. In many of these Jesse’s posture is that of repose combined, effectively, with blindness. His eyes are closed, shielded, or else turned away.
Mary Karr’s poem bristles with similar paradox as she presents the cosmic miracle of the Incarnation which, nonetheless, affords Mary no immediate material comfort. The opening lines juxtapose these two sensibilities: “She bore no more than other women bore / but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s/ full burden swayed.” The first line’s matter-of-fact tone, the compression of Mary to a “she” among all of history’s mothers recalls the way that Luke’s account of the census renders Joseph, Mary, and Jesus almost anonymous. Further juxtapositions of this sort occur. Karr connects images of celestial beauty and portent to those of intimate threat and pain in ways that might remind us of Jesse’s ambivalent posture toward his glorified heirs: “Maybe at the womb’s first clutch /she briefly felt that star shine / as a blade point, but uttered no curses.” Mary instead encounters joy and peace through her obedience and motherhood. But Karr aims at realism more than happy endings. The poem concludes with the disconcerting relationship between sleep and death. The final act and image of screaming (an experience that unites us with Christ as a child) emerges upon the recognition of our vulnerability and need.
The Incarnation does not deliver us from these conditions most of the time. Rather, we find that Christ becomes more and more present to us in the midst of them. As we submit to his path we each find greater joy in obedience and transform ever more into his likeness.
O God: grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us do, that your Spirit of wisdom may guide us through all seasons and occasions—that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble. Give us joy in submitting to your direction and patience as we learn to trust in the perfection of your plans for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.