In becoming incarnate as a baby in Bethlehem long ago, God revealed a change in His modus operandi. That is, in all His previous visitations (such as His appearance to Israel on Mount Sinai when He gave them His Law, or His theophanies to Isaiah in the Temple or to Ezekiel by the River Chebar), He came to us from the outside. While residing in heaven, (I am aware of the limitations of using such spatial metaphors and language), He spoke to us on earth from a distance. The old dichotomies, held by Jew and pagan alike from time immemorial, remained intact —dichotomies such as heaven/ earth, spiritual/ physical, divine/ human. God remained out there, in heaven, far away, and we remained on earth, at a safe distance. Indeed, the whole apparatus of Law, priesthood, sacrifice and Temple was created to maintain this distance, allowing us on earth to have limited communion with the heavenly God. Despite all the talk about God’s Presence in His Temple, everyone in Israel knew that God did not reside in His Tabernacle or Temple like a man resided in his house. Even Solomon, who spent a fortune building and beautifying the Temple, knew this: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You—how much less this House which I have built!” (1 Kg. 8:27). God remained transcendent. His visitations to men and contact with them were visitations from the outside.
God is the God of the unexpected—which is abundantly proven by the fact that He chose to be born of a virgin. He didn’t have to choose such a biological beginning. Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would be born pretty much like everyone else, and the passage in Isaiah 7 often quoted was not interpreted by them as referring directly to the Messiah. In the Hebrew, the text said, “Behold, an almah—a young woman—shall conceive”, and it seemed to refer to events in the eighth century B.C. The word almah was translated into Greek as parthenos, a virgin, and Christians have ever since St. Matthew seen that this could not be a coincidence. But the point is that Jews did not expect their Messiah to be born of a virgin. In choosing a virgin birth for His Son God was not acting simply out of desire to fulfill Jewish expectation. He was doing the unexpected. After such a beginning, it should have come as no surprise to find Him continuing to do unexpected things, such as dying in disgrace on a Roman cross and rising from the dead shortly thereafter.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing God ever did in Israel was this change of modus operandi. For the incarnation meant that now God had invaded and was visiting us from the inside, and that the healing and salvation of the world would occur from the inside out. Everything in Israel’s sacred history had primed them to look upward and outward. Even the posture of prayer taught them this: one prayed by lifting up one’s hands and looking up to heaven. (Kneeling and bowing the head had no liturgical pedigree in Israel.) One looked up to find God, expecting to hear His voice thundering from heaven. When signs came, they came from heaven (see Mk. 8:11), and Jews were trained to think of God as enthroned in heaven far above them.
They were therefore singularly unprepared for His change of approach, and to find that God had come to live beside them. Now God could be found in their midst—going to the same school that they went to, working in the carpenter’s shop that they frequented, attending the same wedding in Cana that they attended, eating and drinking in their presence and teaching in their streets (Lk. 13:26). Poor little drummer boys could approach God on the first Christmas day and say, in the words of the Christmas song, “I am a poor boy too”. God had become a poor boy, a carpenter, a field preacher with nowhere to lay His head. He was now in their midst, Emmanuel, sharing their lot and their load—truly, the God of the unexpected.
This change of approach, this invasion from within, means that the old dichotomies have been overcome and overturned. No more is heaven incompatible with earth, the spiritual incompatible with the physical, God incompatible with Man. In Christ, divinity and humanity dwell as one, and matter has become potentially spirit-bearing. That is the point of the Church’s sacraments. They are physical, and work-a-day and common; they are also Spirit-bearing.
All the sacraments are drawn from our daily existence. Daily and common things like baths, meals of bread and wine, and oil (used as a daily cosmetic—it was only when one fasted that one refrained from daily anointing one’s head—see Mt. 6:17) became the “stuff” of sacraments. In a kind of incarnational extension, these common daily items and activities became the God-ordained means of accessing spiritual power. To receive the new birth, now one took a bath (i.e. received baptismal immersion). To receive spiritual strength and life, one had a meal of bread and wine in the Eucharist. To receive the Holy Spirit and healing, one was anointed with oil. The Church’s life was scandalously secular, in that it used these secular parts of life to a new spiritual purpose. Because of the incarnation, matter was now sanctified, and the physical world saved. Invasion and help and salvation had come—not from the outside, but the inside. God did not appear again on a fiery mountain and speak with the voice of thunder. He appeared as a baby, as one of us, and spoke with a baby’s cry. This is the true scandal and miracle of Christmas.
Admittedly, such a change of modus operandi was of course hard to keep up with. Many in Israel could not keep up, and so rejected Christ’s claim to divinity, and sank into hardness of heart. Keeping up with the God of the unexpected requires spiritual flexibility. Or, to use the Biblical term, humility. Christmas challenges us to be willing lay aside our expectations, our prejudices, our demands. We come as poor boys and girls to God, who has Himself become a poor boy for us in a manger. By coming to Him in humility, (the same way He came to us), we allow His spiritual invasion of the world to reach and heal our hearts also. Christ is born! The saving invasion has begun.