The Risk of Incarnation — A Christmas Meditation

Wednesday, December 24, 2014 - 6:58 am

The Risk of Incarnation — A Christmas Meditation

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”
—John 1:14

As a child growing up in the Methodist Church, the Christmas Eve service always made me teary. Everything about it moved me — the story, the music, the candlelight, the scent of pine, the silent night, the warm presence of family and friends. And for reasons I did not understand, I was touched to the core by the curious claim that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

I was blessed, as all children are, with what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” — so the theological distinction between the Word and a word escaped me. Free of creedal complexities, I was simply captivated by the notion that something as airy as a word could take on bodily form. At the time, I did not understand why it moved me so. Today I do.

There’s often a distressing disconnect between the good words we speak and the way we live our lives. In personal relations and politics, the mass media, the academy and organized religion, our good words tend to float away even as they leave our lips, ascending to an altitude where they neither reflect nor connect with the human condition.

We long for words like love, truth, and justice to become flesh and dwell among us. But in our violent world, it’s risky business to wrap our frail flesh around words like those, and we don’t like the odds.

In the Christmas story, God — an airy word if ever there was one! — takes the risk of incarnation. The flesh God chooses is not that of a warrior but of a vulnerable baby, a claim that brought me tears of wonderment when I was young. But my adult knowledge of that infant’s fate — a fate shared by so many who have devoted their lives to love, truth, and justice — brings tears of anger and grief, along with a primal fear of what might happen if I followed suit.

As a Quaker who believes that “there is that of God in everyone,” I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short — yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.

Christmas is a reminder that I’m invited to be born again and again in the shape of my God-given self, born in all the vulnerability of the Christmas story. It’s a story that’s hard to retrieve in a culture that commercializes this holy day nearly to death, and in churches more drawn to triumphalism and ecclesiastical bling than to the riskiness of the real thing. But the story’s simple meaning is clear to “beginner’s mind,” a mind I long to reclaim at age seventy-five.

An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as we get. What an infant needs is not theological debate but nurturing. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that cry out to become embodied in this broken world. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to find the courage to take on flesh — to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming our lives along with the life of the world — they need the shelter of unconditional love.

For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the best gift we can others — whatever their faith or philosophy may be — is a simple question asked with heartfelt intent: What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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