A few months ago the poet Nikki Giovanni gave an interview with Krista Tippett. She posed a question that has haunted me: “What would happen if we spent as much time looking in the Manger as we do looking at the Cross?”
The traditional story goes that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, forever staining their progeny. In his (and in the traditional story it is always ‘his’) love for humankind God sent his son to die on the Cross to make the payment we never could. With many Christians, I have, for years, turned away from the idea of substitutionary atonement as a kind of divine child abuse. But I have only recently begun to see that the entire structure of Christian thought and practice has been horribly compromised by the idea of original sin.
Before I write any more, let me say that I do not at all mean to suggest that sin and evil are not realities for us to confront. Nor do I mean that the Cross and salvation are somehow secondary to the good news of God in Jesus Christ. I mean the opposite, actually. I mean that in framing God in such literal, transactional, human terms we have missed the whole point. We have robbed both the Incarnation and the Passion and Resurrection of their true, deep, and life-saving power.
The Manger and the Cross are not two separate events. They are the same event two ways. Together they tell the story of God’s outpouring of love into the creation.
God took human form in Jesus of Nazareth, not to save us from the transgression of some mythic ancestor, but to reveal to us that there is not now, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be any separation between creation and God.
In The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Ilia Delio presents an incredibly refreshing view of God as the essence that makes each created being itself:
The fecund relationality of God renders creation neither chance nor necessity; it is God’s destiny. God does what God is–what is true to God’s nature and thus what is divine–love. Because God is love, God is entirely free, and in this freedom God is entirely Godself. God loves the world with the very same love which God is. God is not divine substance governing creation but the radical subject of everything that exists, the depth and wholeness of nature itself that reveals itself in its hiddenness. God’s love fills up each being as “this” (and not “that”), but the limits of any being cannot contain God; thus, the excess of God’s love spills over as “transcendence,” more than any being can grasp. Transcendence is the fecundity of love and the “yearning” dimension of everything that exists. The excess of love draws each element and creature toward greater union and more being. God, therefore, can never be behind creation, as if God does something then steps away to observe it from a distance. Rather, God-Omega-Love is the power of everything that exists and, as the excess of love, the future who holds open in the very present moment the radical possibilities of love. (71)
In other words, God is the part of me that is most me, the part of me that is most real (my “thisness”). As such, God’s love draws me to be more myself. We might say that God is the gravitational pull between me as I am now and me as I will be in freedom, love, and wholeness. God is the yearning for wholeness within me, and God is that greater wholeness that I yearn for. God’s love so overfills my life that I cannot but yearn for more of God, for more wholeness. Thus God is both the engine of transformation and freedom and the essence of that freedom and transformation. God is deeply present in all matter, though not exhausted by that matter. Rather, God is the foundation of matter’s physicality and the potential for matter’s transformation and evolution.
To be free in love, however, we must know ourselves as being loved, and this means accepting ourselves as lovable. Jesus was free in love because he lived in truth and authenticity of being. We discover our true selves in love when we realize we are not alone and therefore have no need to defend our isolated egos. The lovability of our lives is our particular inscape, our “thisness,” not simply our genome or phenotypes, but the unique constituency of relationships that makes each “I” a living “Thou” with a distinct personality. To realize our human capacity to love is the beginning of divinization because in the beauty of our “I” is the living Thou waiting to be called upon as God. (133)
God is the absolute essence of me. In order to come to know and love God, I first have to come to know and love myself in all my particularity. There is no other bit of matter in the universe that coalesces into form in exactly the way that I do. Who I am is made up of genes and phenotypes, as well as the history I have lived, this moment of time in which I exist, my family history, my education, and the choices I have made and not made. All of this makes me me in a way that no other created being is me or ever will be me.
By living fully into my “thisness,” my particularity, I allow God to shine forth in my life. This, in short, is the meaning of the Manger: that matter matters. Matter, the physical stuff of the universe, is God’s body. Matter doesn’t exhaust God, but it does express God. Flesh is not perfect, no, but neither is it tainted. It is radiant.
What a revolution we would have if we could begin to see the world around us, the whole universe, and we ourselves as little God particles walking around, as irreplaceable, unrepeatable expressions of divine love and intention.
So many of our social, ecclesial, and spiritual sins spring from a denial of the sacredness of the material world. Chattel slavery rested on the belief that a human being could be bought and sold as property. Poverty plagues our world because we continue to believe that some lives are worth more than others. We maim the planet that supports and encloses our lives because we see it as a “resource” to be exploited, rather than as an incarnation of God.
R.S. Thomas’ poem “The Bright Field” offers another way of experiencing the world:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
If we had the eyes to see, we would prostrate ourselves before one another, before the great River outside our door, before the miracles of the acorn and the spider. We would know them to be tabernacles bearing the very heart of God into our midst.
How would our choices differ if we understood God to be intimately present to us in each atom of the material world? How would our lives change if we could see that land is not a commodity to be owned but a gift, a relationship to be entered into with awe and gratitude?
The Word that comes to us in the Word made Flesh, is the Word that says a fundamental “yes” to each of us, a “let it be” to our existence in each moment, and a “come and see” to who we will become. This is the same Word that whispers in our hearts, “you must change your life.”
How do we change our lives? We pour them out. We cling to nothing. We adore the mysterious, radiant God around and among us. We speak our own word, a word that no other being in this vast universe could speak. We say our “yes,” our “let it be.”