The Mess


Own work

[W]ho, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV)

During this Advent season, I’ve thought a good deal about the central wonder of Christmas, that the one Christians believe to be “very God” was “born in human likeness”, which is really to say, he was born as fully human as you and me.

I wonder if we have ever thought about how messy this all was. To begin with, we have a baby developing over nine months in a bath of amniotic fluid in Mary’s womb. Then there is water breaking, and the passage of the baby and the placenta through the birth canal. Amazing, yes, but messy. And then there is infancy — nursing and changing — yes, Jesus didn’t come toilet-trained.

It is amazing to me that the son of God would so thoroughly participate in our mess. We are messy people, and not just in our infancy. We are physically messy and smelly and bathing only temporarily covers that. And it could be argued that we are pretty good at making a mess of the world around us. And we do this all the way until we make our exit from this world, often a messy affair as well.

I’m staggered that God would indeed get intimately mixed up in all the mess of human bodily existence. He didn’t stay aloof in some ethereal, spiritual realm, far removed from our mess. He got right into it, even to the point of death by one of the cruelest means humans have devised, the cross.

The real question Christmas poses is “why?” Why does God the son let go of all the prerogatives of deity to wade into our mess? What is this (messy) baby in the manger really all about?

The only thing that really makes sense to me is the conclusion one of the early fathers of the church, Athanasius, wrote in On the Incarnation:

He became what we are that he might make us what he is.

More prosaically, you might say, he entered our mess to clean us up and make us like him. And why would he do that? To become what he is, at least in character, though not in essence, is not just about reclaiming what was lost but about restoring us to relationship. Jesus became a child in a human family so that we could be children of God, part of a heavenly family.

The real gifts of Christmas are not those brought by the Magi nor found under the tree, but rather the child in manger. And the questions this day poses to us are, will we believe he is indeed gift for us and receive the gift that is him? Will we let him into our mess? Will we not simply welcome him into our family but accept his welcome into his?

This is Christmas.

Review: Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt

Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt
Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt by Albert Haase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Voices from the past can be like a bucket of cold water awakening us to realities to which our own age renders us oblivious. Reading Athanasius, particularly in this vivid paraphrase is like that. Part of this is the subject matter for most of this work, the life of Antony. Antony was a desert monastic–holy but hardly tame. Most striking in Athanasius narrative on Antony is his spiritual combat with demonic beings. Were it not for the wisdom and discernment Antony shows elsewhere, one might think him a bit deranged. Yet perhaps this reflects our own obliviousness to the spiritual powers and that they may lull us with subtleties and not need to attack directly. Here is one quote from Antony that gives a sense of this (and of Haase’s paraphrasing):

“If you really had guts and power, only one of you would have come. But since the Lord has conquered you, you had to gang up on me like schoolyard bullies. In reality, your bark is worse than your bite….If you really have guts and power, then come on and have at me! But if you are a wuss, why disturb me? For faith in our Lord is the strongest of defenses and the best of weapons.”(p.33)

We also see in Antony the combination of the interior spirituality of the desert with the ability to minister with insight with both individuals and groups where necessary. Antony’s life is an account of the physicality of spiritual formation as he deals with lust, fasting, physical suffering and more and how facing these dependent upon Christ can immeasurably deepen our love for God.

The book also includes several shorter pieces by Athanasius. The letter to Ammoun gives pastorally wise counsel to a young man about the normal physical excretions of the body (including nocturnal emissions) and that since God made the body, these are not evil or unclean but normal and good. The letter to Dracontius challenges one fleeing a call to the bishopric to courage and obedience. And the fragment of Festal Letter 19 is an important piece of evidence from the early fourth century to the already forming consensus of the church on the canon of scripture.

The book includes a study guide for reflection or discussion, and an annotated bibliography on the works of Athanasius–all in 128 pages!

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