Today we hear how the Almighty One does great things for the lowly, those who fear and are hungry, those who need assistance and all who hold onto a promise from God. We lit a final candle and assembled a humble manger in preparation for the Christ child, the baby Jesus, Mary’s son, our Lord. Our second reading was from Hebrews. Earlier in Hebrews (5:8) Paul writes, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
We sons and daughters, also learn obedience through what we suffer. How many times in our lives have we learned something the hard way? I think the labyrinth, a meditative circular walking path is the perfect image for my life’s journey. I’ve made many a sharp turn that led me to walk right beside a place I had already been. Sons and daughters throughout time learn obedience at the hands of family, friends and sometimes the law. God continues to suggest certain paths that people choose not to take. But Mary, Jesus and Joseph took the paths God laid before them.
The portrait of Mary is one of pure submission. As Mary listened to Gabriel explain how she would miraculously conceive of the Holy Spirit, to our knowledge she didn’t say, “You’ve got to be kidding. Can’t you spare me all that pain and suffering?” She is portrayed as a humble sinless maiden. Replying, “I am your servant. Let it be as you have spoken.” Mary offered her body, and the fruit of her womb as a sacrifice when she willfully, without hesitation agreed to God’s will.
Unlike Jesus, who found himself circling the final loop on the garden labyrinth and on his knees once more. He looked for an alternative way to arrive at the center circle, the one place where humanity and God were not separated by sin. As he walked the path of God’s will for his life, we’re led to believe that through his journey, Jesus learned to submit, to be obedient beyond what any of us have ever had to deal with. Jesus was obedient even unto death on a cross.
When I think of Jesus learning obedience, I think of the 12 year old boy who made his parents sick with worry by not following them home and remaining in the city. His parents tried to instruct him, but he had the last word. “Don’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business?” A reply that seemed to trump his earthly mother and father’s attempt to teach him obedience. We know he did follow them home after all. Hopefully learned to let his parents know in advance, if he had plans.
But, I propose that Jesus had his first lesson in obedience, as he prepared to leave heaven and enter Mary’s womb. Could that have been any easier than dying on the cross? I think not. We imagine death on the cross while bearing the sins of the world followed by taking a trip to hell as the biggest and worst sacrifices Jesus made. However, In that way of thinking, we compartmentalize the baby Jesus as this cute little infant. Especially around Christmas, we hesitate to see death along with the baby. Our solution is to project his sacrifice into the fate or destiny of his adult self. Then, we can enjoy the baby like a human child.
Unlike a human child, Jesus, being God, would not have been spared from remembering his life before entering Mary’s womb. He would have been all too aware that his cells were dividing inside of an organ attached to a larger physical body. During the entire pregnancy, Jesus was constantly reminded of the sacrifice he was making.
For our benefit, God’s word in Hebrews, ties together the human understanding of religious sacrifice with the human need for redemption by saying, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ’Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’”
A body prepared for Christ. A woman’s body, the body of a boy child, the body of a young man, bodies prepared for him, yet unknown to him.
Beginning a journey into the unknown meant that life as he knew it would never be the same. We understand how military service, getting married, starting a family, selling a home, changing schools, jobs, or setting up certain doctor’s appointments can change us forever.
Mary’s magnificat, her soul magnifying God is a song born of miraculous changes. Evidenced by things that were occuring in spite of their odds, she, Elizabeth and even her unborn baby, John responded joyfully to the Holy Spirit’s work. It doesn’t say whether the unborn baby Jesus leapt for joy. Maybe he was still getting used to the body that had been prepared for him, lol. With them, generations more, including us alive today have songs to sing born of evidence. We can claim the presence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in the face of life changes.
Every major change comes with a host of unknowns, problems and growth opportunities. Maybe that’s why a whole host of angels welcomed the birth of Jesus. The hosts of heaven were sent to help balance the future sorrow of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the mothers giving birth during that two year span of Herod’s reign.
After a tragic loss, we cherish every tangible bit of evidence tied to life. After my adult children visit me, if I find a very long dark brown hair from my daughter, or word pictures scribbled by my son, I might date it and give it a place of remembrance. Each is a visible sign of their actual presence.
That’s what the infant Jesus offers. Our readings today remind us that the baby Jesus will die. In the Bible story, he’s not even been born,yet we need to remember why he comes in the first place.
These thoughts are not meant to damper our joy, or throw a wet blanket on the baby from the start. But, are meant for you to consider that the very incarnation of God was the beginning of God’s ultimate sacrifice. It was Jesus’ first lesson in obedience.
It also helps us to remember that in the big picture, that is, eternity, God’s love for us is unchanging. It did not shrink to a small proportion tiny enough to become implanted in Mary’s uterus, needing to grow in love for humanity until it was willing to sacrifice everything for humankind. God’s capacity for sacrifice and obedience did not need to grow to adult size so it could finally be expressed in full form.
Theologians argue that without the resurrection, there would be no salvation, I think, when Christ says, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me,” his words speak to the power of the incarnation itself. In the baby, we can marvel at Immanuel, God with us.
When we talk about eating the real body and drinking the real blood of Christ, it can still seem a little weird. After today, we can talk to God like Jesus did, “You have prepared this body for me.” That is our form of incarnation. During Communion, Christ’s body once again takes on human form as it enters in and abides with us.
Scholars don’t recognize the incarnation alone, as reconciliation of God with humanity. But, when God chose to become human, God did become one of us. We ceased to be only made in God’s image when God took on our image, flesh and blood.
So when you look at the infant Jesus in the creche, there is that tension of knowing that he came to die. But, after today, I hope that you will see that by becoming an infant, Jesus had already made the ultimate sacrifice. If we acknowledge this, his entire life becomes a sacrifice for our sake, not just his death on the cross. We can hold joy in our hearts knowing that the baby Jesus will not meet a tragic ending in contrast to his beautiful birth scene, but recognize that Jesus too, began his journey as a portrait of pure submission. He was a willing lowly servant like his mother, Mary.
Jesus said, “See, God, I have come to do your will.”
God’s will and Jesus’ obedient acceptance of it involves meeting people in their most fragile helpless states. It is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus. Not only by Christ on the cross, but by the infant.
God knows exactly how to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, and has the power to save us. Even if Herod had succeeded in killing the infant king, I’m not so sure God’s plan for redemption would have been completely ruined.
God is like that. Able to do great things in spite of the odds. I guess the bottom line, is not to think for a moment that God intervened only once throughout history. Don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter as the only two times God made a big move in history. Eat and drink the body and blood of Christ knowing the body was prepared in advance. The incarnation of God as the baby Jesus, allows us to partake of Communion bread and wine knowing that both are visible signs of God’s actual presence. We too, have a song to sing for what the Almighty One has done. Amen.