Advent’s Invitation to Incarnational Imagination
“The poet knows that the human experience of the sacred is awash in the particularity of things, the sensuous surface and ambient array of details that make possible any sense of dwelling in the presence of mystery.” – Belden Lane
It’s Christmas morning, 1981, and I’m seven years old. I wake up early and fly down the two flights of stairs from my bedroom on the top floor of our townhouse to our family room in the basement—and the Christmas tree. Two flights of stairs and I barely touch a step. When I get there, I’m surprised. I thought I was the only one up, but my father is already there, sitting by the tree. And he says to me, “Did you see it?” I look at him blankly. “Did you see your present? Upstairs…by the TV.” It finally registers what he’s saying. So, I race back up the stairs to the living room…and sitting there next to the TV is what remains to this day my favorite Christmas present of all time: an Atari 2600 video game console, the grand-daddy of today’s X-Box, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, and Wii—items sure to be on many Christmas lists this year.
The reason the Atari 2600 is my favorite gift, and that morning is one of my favorite Christmas memories, was not the Atari itself. It was how it came to me. I hadn’t asked for it and didn’t even know what it was at first. It was an unexpected gift found in an unexpected place. I treasure the memory of the surprise as much as I did the gift itself. Yes, it was merely a toy—a thing that I eventually outgrew—but the experience of my parents’ thoughtfulness, their consideration both of what I would want as a gift and how to create unforgettable delight in discovering it, impressed itself deeply into my memory. It made real, as this special memory continues to do, my parents’ love and affection for me.
The season of Advent, which we have just entered, is a time of anticipation and preparation for the birth of Christ. But we often forget that, for most of the people in the ancient Near East, he, too, was an unexpected gift found in an unexpected place—in a lowly manger, to humble parents, in an insignificant corner of a Roman colony, Bethlehem. The Incarnation, the Word made flesh, made surprisingly real the presence of God in the everyday lives of an oppressed people.
For most of us, life is much easier. The exquisite surprise of the Incarnation is easily muted in the hustle and bustle of what we seldom really think of as the Advent season outside of church contexts. Waiting, watching, anticipating—these are the tasks of Advent. Yet, as fewer people affiliate with religious institutions, and those who do attend do so with less frequency, ministry leaders are challenged to find ways of helping the people we serve recognize the holy in the midst of their daily living, not just within our church buildings.
We need to nurture in our people an incarnational imagination that enables us to see our lives and the lives of others—and the people, places, activities, and things that comprise them—through the lens of the Incarnation to discover the sacred in even the smallest, most mundane experiences. In Landscapes of the Sacred, Christian spirituality scholar Belden Lane puts it this way: “In Christian thought, the one great practical truth of the incarnation is that the ordinary is no longer at all what it appears. Common things, common actions, common relationships are all granted new definition because the holy has once and for all become ordinary in Jesus Christ.” In this incarnational reality, he says, “Religion isn’t always a matter of otherworldly transcendence. It continually sets up camp in the ordinary.”
Yet the ordinary corridors of everyday life are often the places we least expect to encounter the divine. We are often much more attuned to the divine presence in times of great joy and in times of suffering, but we rarely think to look for the holy in the very mundane activities of our day-to-day lives, which, in fact, make up the majority of life: cooking, cleaning, parenting, running errands, working, eking out time for spouses or partners and friends, and so on.
Martin Luther often wrote about God showing up where we least expect it. For Luther, that happened nowhere more powerfully than on the cross, where God was hidden, he would say, under God’s opposite: the all-powerful Creator of the universe hanging like a common criminal on a cross. On the cross, God is obscured and yet fully revealed. It is of course the most dramatic expression of incarnation in the Christian tradition, but not the only one. The paradoxical, hidden-in-plain sight quality is found in Jesus’s lowly birth in a manger—the most undramatically ordinary of spaces.
In his book, The Humble Sublime, Ronald Thiemann writes about how theologians and artists have understood the consequences and manifested the realities of the Incarnation in their work. He uses the example of the painting by Rembrandt van Rijn alternatively called “The Holy Family” and “The Household of the Carpenter” in which a family of three—father, mother, and baby—are set within a 17th-century carpenter’s workshop. Is it the holy family? Or is it a depiction of 17th-century living? The answer is yes. It is both. Because of the Incarnation, the divine, the sublime, always shows up in the ordinary moments of our daily living. When we use incarnational imagination, such ordinary moments become ones in which “we glimpse what seems most familiar to us with wholly new eyes” (to borrow Belden’s language).
Here, because we are in Advent, because we are waiting for Incarnation at Christmas, I turn to the wisdom of the great 20th-century American theologian, Dr. Seuss, in his classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! If my most enduring Christmas memory centers on an amazing and unexpected gift, for the Whos, you will likely recall, there was a very different surprise. After a night spent plundering Whoville, removing every Christmas present and decoration, no matter how small, the Grinch waits to hear the anguished cries of the Whos over their missing gifts and de-glittered trees. But instead, on Christmas morning, he comes upon a very different scene:
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling:
“How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”
And he puzzled and puzzled, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”
Ah…that—just “a little bit more.” That is the challenge—and the invitation—of incarnational imagination in a season of often-misdirected anticipation, in a time of waiting and watching for the presence of God in the midst of the most ordinary of experiences, in the most unexpected of places. In everything. In nothing. In, as Belden Lane puts it, “the particularity of things,” but also in the felt experience of everyday relationships, activities, joys, and disappointments. Advent is a season in which we are encouraged, even as we are distracted by so many packages, boxes, and bags, to fine tune our sense of the holy in its most unadorned, no ribbons or tags required. The richness of this incarnational imaginative experience is why, so many years later, my Atari 2600 is part of my life only as a particular thing that made particularly real a much more enduring experience of love.