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Whilst Christmas has become, to me, a cause for annual dread, the Incarnation -- disentangled from the trappings -- draws me to increasing wonderment with every passing year. In the heart-stirringly good Housekeeping, my new-favourite-novelist Marilynne Robinson articulates it with compelling resonance...
Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad — such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. (Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, p194) By way of focusing on the aspects of Christmas that I can get excited about, I have spent some time mulling over the early chapters of Luke in this past week or so . They reverberate with the sense of slowly dawning realisation: Mary's willing but bewildered acquiescence to the charge presented her by Gabriel -- "I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (1:26-38); her song of joyful praise as she increasingly anticipates that God is doing something astounding -- "He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy" (1:46-55); Zechariah's prophetic recognition that redemption is afoot and that his own son John would "go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people" (1:67-79); the angels' declaration of "good news of great joy that will be for all the people", and the shepherds' awe and eager haste to go "and see this thing that has happened", and their subsequent rejoicing (2:8-20); Simeon's Spirit-led discernment of the baby Jesus as the promised Christ, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel", and his, and Anna's, undisguised excitement when he is presented at the temple (2:22-38).
And then, a little further on, there comes the announcement which the adult Jesus makes about himself as he begins his public ministry. The words, in fact, are someone else's, written eight centuries earlier...
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,Applying these words to himself was just one of the many ways that Jesus caused controversy and divided his hearers. The fervent opposition he provoked was to result, eventually, in his execution. But the reports about his life...and death, and...resurrection?!...and the impact he has had on history and has on individual lives today, make it hard to dismiss his claims off-hand, however outrageous and nonsensical to 'modern sensibilities' they seem. I'd like to suggest that there is at the very least a 'case to be answered to' -- that the evidence is worth exploring, and that the searching question Jesus asked of his disciples still resounds today...
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20)My answer to this question has implications for every corner of my life. Including the corner I wish I could hide in until January, and the opposing corner that I instead feel ruthlessly backed into. Including the corners of my character so perfectly angled to burst everyone else's festive bubbles. Dear everyone else ... I know I'm not very loving at this time of year, nor still less easy to love. Please bear with me; my hope is there's hope for me yet (see above).
 May I take this opportunity to reassure my evangelical brothers and sisters that, as far as I can make out (having begun to read her other work), she is not intending to imply that Jesus' resurrection was not bodily -- rather to explore with poetic speculation some of the more layered aspects of what a bodily resurrection means. As an aside, I find the idea of 'remembered information re-embodied' quite a helpful one in getting my head around this particular mind-blowing concept (I tried to write about this once before).
 Ooh, now I come to think of it, there's other things mulled this time of year that I am not averse to...