Over in Bethlehem, renovations are under way on the Church of the Nativity, the basilica located at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. It’s the first major renovation of the place in 600 years. Basic maintenance of the building, parts of which go back 1,500 years, has been neglected for decades. Now water from a leaking roof and windows threatens irreplaceable mosaics, frescoes, and other priceless items in what is one of Christianity’s most visited and sacred shrines.
That’s the way it is with church buildings, even the most sacred of them. They may be steeped in history and invested with profound meaning, but they are only bricks and mortar, after all, and they show the weakness of all of creation. They are vulnerable to design flaws and construction mistakes and the ravages of time. They age and crumble and, if left unattended, eventually fail and fall.
That’s the way it is with us, too, even the most dedicated faithful of us. As St. Paul wrote, “We have this treasure in clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:7). Even the most faithful disciplines we maintain to help us welcome Christ are subject to human weakness. Each year I have the best of intentions to prepare a place where Christ may be born anew in me and in the community and to guard it against the daily incursions of life in the real world. And every year at this time I am so swept away administering the details of Advent and Christmas, it seems I have no time or attention to experience being the cradle of Incarnation.
It’s not hard for me to begin imagining St. Paul’s frustration with his situation in life. “I’ve tried everything,” he wrote about his broken condition, “and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me” (Rom. 7:24 The Message)?
Well, there’s Christ. And there’s my problem, because Christ sometimes seems to be of no avail at all in helping me out of this bedlam in which I spend my days. I want to ask of Christ, as in his imprisonment John asked of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” (Matt. 11:3)? Why does all my preparation for an intimate, living encounter with God Incarnate so often seem to be of no help at all? Not only do I return from my preparation to the same problems I had before. The problems and challenges of life seldom if ever abate even in the midst of my careful preparation for the experience of Christmas.
In the days just before Jesus was born, the Essenes were pretty good at preparing for the Messiah. They had effectively retreated from the assaults of the world and established their community at Qumran, on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. They lived a well-ordered life of prayer, study, and worship. They even had something like our United Methodist Book of Discipline to shape their life together.
Probably nobody on earth prepared for the Messiah better than the Essenes, and they were confident that when the Messiah was born, they would be the first ones to welcome him. And so it happened that late one night, in the near distance, so close they might have been able to see the flickering of oil lamps in the distance and hear the music of the prayers of the Essenes, a small caravan of magi traveled past Qumran toward Bethlehem.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s precisely in my preparation for God’s Incarnation that I miss the experience of God’s most intimate presence. Jesus said what we’ve been waiting for is already spread around us and we don’t see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). Maybe it’s my preparation, my expectations, that prevent my seeing what’s already right in front of my eyes but in a form so unexpected I don’t recognize it.
John, sitting in his prison cell, wanted to know if Jesus was the one who was to come or if he should wait for another. And Jesus told John’s messengers to tell him what they saw and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news. All of those things were the tell-tale signs, foretold by the prophets, of the Messiah’s coming.
But there was another sign of the Messiah’s coming, one everyone would have expected, that was missing from the list. There was no mention of prisoners being set free. The sign John might have yearned to see more than any of the others – his release – never came, and he would eventually die in prison without ever knowing freedom again.
Christ came 2,000 years ago – and I suspect always comes – not where I expect, not even to a place where I want so desperately for Christ to come, but to unexpected places I overlook. Christ doesn’t rise up in Jerusalem, in the seat of power and influence, in royal palaces wearing soft robes (Matt. 11:7-9). Christ comes down in Bethlehem, in some place just beyond my notice, where I wouldn’t think to look.
God’s intimacy is not found in recognition or fame or notoriety or status. The Messiah won’t be encountered in money or things money will buy, things like possessions or privilege or public image or security in life. Christ will not be grasped by any exercise of power as power is usually understood. Incarnation will not be experienced in our best music and liturgy. And there’s nothing I or any of us can do in good church administration that will create an experience of God’s living presence.
Isaiah writes that when Christ comes there will be “nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look”; he will seem utterly worthless (Isa. 53:3 The Message). Christ will come as Christ has always come, in love. When God becomes present to us, it’s always in love. Christ’s birth 2,000 years ago is of no value at all if Christ is not born here and now, in the Bethlehem of my heart: in love.