Being a kid was great.
As a child, I could count on being fed, could make up games in my head or in the garden…all those wonderful things I could do because I was usually carefree. But there were the banalities as well—the exhaustion I felt because I didn’t actually like going to bed (yet) or my grumpiness because I was hungry but didn’t quite know how to manage that apparent angst.
Something I think about, then, is Jesus as a little one. He must have cried from hunger, right? Did he act mischievously and get punished? And did he scrape his knee trying to run in some game? These are things I can’t normally imagine the God of the Universe doing. But that’s what is fascinating about his incarnation. God in some strange goodness thought to subject himself to the process of growing up so I’d know he knew what it’s like.
Mary Karr’s book of poems, Sinners Welcome, rescinds the image of a clean, idealistic Christian faith that knows nothing of hurt, fear, or loss. The sinners invited in are you and me, blistered from abuse and exhausted from the trite tasks done to survive.
One of three “Descending Theology” poems in the book, “Descending Theology: The Nativity” is technically a Christmas verse. In it, Karr reminds the reader of the intensity of life, this time through Mary’s eyes as she waits to give birth to Jesus.
Karr’s first line is a sort of proverb: “She bore no more than other women bore…” The first half of a great contrast is set up in those words. She reminds the reader that childbirth is both one of the strongest emotional experiences a woman can go through, and yet it happens every few minutes around the world: this birth day is not much different for Mary than it would be for any other woman.
As a mother does, Mary strokes her full belly, cringing as contractions begin. Each pulse of pain is a nudge toward meeting God in human form. And, finally, he is out, in the world, a writhing reality needing his mother’s touch. An incredible realization of his “pure being” is there, filling Mary just as she feeds him.
The one she prays to is now in her arms as the one she prays for.
This is the mind-bending juxtaposition I try to understand when I talk about Jesus: The God who finger-paints the galaxies funneled his love into a human heart. This Lord who roars like a lion in Hosea 11 gently perches as dove in John 1.
One called the King of all Creation twitches and howls as an infant in his mother’s arms.
I think this is one of the most sensational, most important claims of my faith. The contrast of the ordinary with the exceptional is not exactly particular to religion, but pairing the God of the universe with a human body is just the sort of match that prompts me to realize how extensive this God’s love is. That is, he cares about me so much that he’s embodied in a helpless child, learning to gurgle, whine, and grin just as I did. In Karr’s poem, he’s wriggling about as a baby because he’s getting connected to our experience, coming into the world “(as we all do) screaming.”
Altogether this is one of the perfect, bizarre mysteries of the Christian God, that his knowledge extends from the tiniest atomic structure of each molecule in my body out to name the exploding stars in a galaxy thirteen billion light years away, and still he listens to my stuttering prayers about how loneliness overwhelms me. This God sees to it that there are chameleons, beluga whales, and giraffes in the world, and still begs to hear about the trouble I’m having with my boss or partner or close friend.
Of course, Jesus wouldn’t have had my corporate troubles or had to manage freeway road rage, but he knew the dullness and possible difficulty of finding and preparing food each day.
He knew the searing ache of feet tired of walking to and from cities where you’re not welcome.
Especially in a poem about his birth, I see he knew the helplessness of a child, of needing another human being—needing her touch, needing her milk.
I don’t know, really, or understand exactly what it means to have God in a human body. But I do know being human means he was tired, hungry, and frustrated—like me. That he was hurt, angry, and probably lonely at times—like me.
This is the drama of the Christmas occasion: in the nativity, the most extraordinary occurrence, I see the uncontainable God reach out to my unremarkable self.