It was one of the first winter evenings of biting cold when I noticed her. She was sitting on the pavement outside Sainsburys, arranging carrier bags of possessions around her feet, knees brought up to her chin, floral dress poking out of a carrier bag. She had a look of world-weariness combined with hope – the sort of face where the lights have dimmed but haven’t gone out. There was still some feist and spirit in the way she organised her bags and sat expectantly, but it was combined with a hollow and resounding sadness. She stopped me in my tracks because she was probably about my age. I was on my way home, at the time of day when mums like me are busy cooking meals, taxiing children to-and-from activities and helping with homework. I was heading into the shop for ingredients for tea. Would she like something to eat I asked? She requested cookies – with white chocolate chips, and I obliged. I took her apple juice too, in the hope that maybe somewhere there would be a trace of nutrition in this meagre feast. She took them both and thanked me. We parted company, and that would have been it, had the whisper of God not prompted me to offer to pray.
I returned to her awkwardly, and asked if I could pray for her. It felt like offering to water the Sahara, one tiny fragmentary gesture in an abyss of unmet need, and yet she fell upon my offer with gratitude and we exchanged names. She told me a snapshot of her situation, and I prayed, aware with every syllable of the inadequacy of my tiny response to this wide chasm of a broken human life. When I had finished praying, she asked “Can I pray for you?” She held tightly to my hand, and prayed that I would have a good life and that I would know God’s blessings upon me. These are things I dearly want, I suspect they are the things that she wants too, along with a safe and warm place to live (“I wouldn’t care if it was the size of a shoebox” she said). The juxtaposition of our two lives was glaringly apparent as I walked back to my car, and drove away to my warm home and family, leaving her sitting on a cold pavement outside Sainsburys, clutching all she owned in the world around her feet.
I’m grappling with what it means to be a follower of Jesus in a world like this.
It’s advent at the moment, a time where the church chooses to journey in that rocky hinterland between two kingdoms. The people of God have always been a pilgrim people, journeying between the now-and-the-not-yet, and nowhere is that more apparent than during this season of expectant waiting, where we hold hope and brokenness together.
This is a season of light and shade. It is a time when it’s right to reflect on suffering and injustice as we hope for the One who will make all things new. We really don’t have to look very far in our groaning and heaving world to see why we need such a hope.
But God, in subversive creative brilliance, had a master plan that no human intellect with its emphasis on power and control could ever have dreamed up. God’s loving kindness and hope for humanity entered the world in 8lbs of human flesh, warm and squawking, born into squalor and destitution, of questionable parentage, with no credentials to his name. God as one of us, a living, breathing human being, a little baby no less.
We may be used to this narrative, and the tale of innkeepers, stars, shepherds and wise men trips off the tongue with alarming familiarity, and yet what we are really grappling with is beyond all comprehension. That God willingly chose to become a human baby – entirely dependent on others for his every need, subject to the usual patterns of human development, learning and experience. It is a gesture of vulnerability so costly and extravagant and yet so tangible and real. The language of “incarnation” can feel dusty and religious, but really what we are talking about here is God, “with skin on” as others have said before me.
I can’t see another credible way that a God of love could have reached out to his creation and really showed beyond reasonable doubt that he understood what it means to walk this earth, unless he had done just that.
What I’m realising though, is that we have Christianised Jesus, and our desire to demonstrate his divinity can mean that we forget the full extent of his humanity. Jesus the baby, the toddler, the boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult – Jesus whose personality, identity, physical body and spirituality were developing and forming as he grew, who was subject to a time, place and culture, who had relationships and was influenced by others, who hurt and cried, laughed and celebrated, worked and played, loved and was loved.
When we are unable to see Jesus through the prism of his own humanity, perhaps we are less able to see him in the humanity of others. And yet I can’t think what this sore and broken world needs more than vulnerable disciples of a vulnerable messiah.
Who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2: 6-11, NLT
This is one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church, and it points to the deep mystery and power of God choosing to take on human flesh and live and walk this earth.
In this time of advent, I am so aware of the pressures that crowd in on every side. I know that as I look at my own life with its inconsistencies, consumerism and contradictions, my heart can so easily become brittle and closed off to the pain of others. I know that I cannot meet the needs of the homeless, broken and destitute all around me, and so it becomes easy to shut down – bury myself back into my closeted sub-culture, choose not to engage, batten down the hatches, experience the inevitable guilt and lock myself ever deeper into the same old broken patterns that fragment us and deepen our alienation.
It is precisely because I (and we?) function like this that we need a saviour. It is precisely because our humanity is precious and beautiful that our saviour had to live and breathe the same air that we do. He came – and who can resist a baby? This was Good News then, and it’s Good News today. God’s son was born, in the usual way, right in the midst of messy, human chaos. God entrusted himself completely to ordinary human beings. This Christmas, can we entrust ourselves and the mess and chaos of our lives to a saviour and friend like this?