“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” ~ Simone Weil
If you are like me, you don’t often stare at people in public or cry in public. It is an unofficial code of our culture. And yet for a few months in the spring of 2010, both of those things happened in abundance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The artist Marina Abramovic sat, six days a week, seven hours a day in a plain chair, under bright klieg lights, in MoMA’s towering atrium. She clocked 700 hours of sitting. During that time her routine seldom varied. Every day she took her place just before the museum doors opened and left it after they closed. Her wardrobe was consistent: a sort of concert gown with a long train, in one of three colors (red, black, and white).
Always her hair, in a braided plait, was pulled forward over her left shoulder. Always her skin was an odd pasty white as if the blood had drained away. Her pose rarely changed: her body slightly bent forward, she stared silently and intently straight ahead.
There was one variable, a big one: her audience.
Visitors to the museum were invited, first come first served, to sit in a chair facing her and silently return her gaze. The chair was rarely, if ever, empty. Close to 1,400 people occupied it, some for only a minute or two, a few for an entire day.
A collection of photos by Marco Anelli is stunning. People from all the diversity that you might expect living in New York sat in that chair. Their facial expressions ran the gamut from enrapt joy, confusion to weeping.
When I read about that, I wondered what is it that causes such deep emotion to well up out of someone over a few minutes of uninterrupted eye contact with a total stranger. I think it is genuine presence. The artist offered to total strangers what you and I rarely receive: Uninterrupted connection. No distractions, no technology, and no agenda. And many of those people found that profoundly moving.
The good news we hear from Scripture is that, in Jesus, God is present—with us.
If you have been around the faith for very long you are aware that we barely get three chapters into our story in the book of Genesis and you find that mankind lost interest in God.
They had enjoyed unfettered access to each other and to the Creator-God who made them. But then they do the one thing that God asked them to not do and they find themselves looking for bushes in which they might hide. God walks through the garden asking, “Where are you?” Then, after a sad conversation with God, they find themselves leaving the garden and heading east of Eden—away from God.
We aren’t with God, but God wants to be with us. And from that point on the story is God on a journey to find us, asking us, “Where are you?” Wanting to be with us even when we don’t want to be with Him.
Fast forward to nine months before the first Christmas, around 4 B.C. in Nazareth, and an angel announced to the town handyman, whose fiancé is mysteriously pregnant: God will finally be with us.
Just like there used to be long garden walks in the cool of the day with the Creator-God, those days are here again! And the world would never be the same. If we would sit with this truth it can only stagger us.
“The Word is born a child. It is only right that we should be astounded.” ~Bernard of Clairvaux
The creator of the cosmos, comes to a planet which is only a floating dust mote in the Milky Way galaxy, and that galaxy is a tiny swirl of flecks in the universe, and that Universe is barely a jot or a tittle in the cosmos. And God doesn’t come as a king or an emperor, he comes as dimpled handed and chubby-cheeked little baby boy. Born of two of the poorest of the poor in the smallest of villages in the tiniest of nations. God is born a child. It is only right that we should be astounded.
I wonder if we could turn down the schmaltzy muzak, clear away the tinsel, and be astounded at the entrance of God into this dark world.
“Jesus” literally means “the Lord Saves’ and thus Jesus’ vocation and his name are one. The little squirming bundle of joy that Mary and Joseph would hold that night in Bethlehem would speak words of wonder, touch diseased bodies, walk on water, confound and disturb the religious establishment, be beaten at a post, hung on a cross, stabbed in the side, put in a grave, and on the third day rise from the dead—is God with us.
The modern secular way of approaching life says that there is nothing that needs saving in the world. That all that we think is right or wrong or evil about the world is merely a product of sociology and biology. And as we progress in our scientific discoveries, we will eventually rid the world of all that is wrong.
That sounds good, but it doesn’t match what we see in the news every night or what shows up in your social media feed. Or even what we see when we look into the mirror. We know there are things that happen in the world that are bad and it is not getting any better; it seems to be getting worse.
Then there’s the religious approach and when you boil down the religious approaches to God they all more or less say: Save yourself. You get your life in order and God or the divine will accept you, approve of you, and welcome you into his/its presence.
Our faith doesn’t say we can do anything to save ourselves. It says God rescues us, liberates us, and restores us through Jesus. We simply have to embrace that fact.
God feels the pain of your life and mine, is compassionate about the deep pains of the world, and actually comes all the way in and all the way down into our insecurities, loneliness, and betrayal. God actually tastes the salty tears of heartbreak and the coppery tang of blood on his lips. God came and lived in this brutal world.
The birth of Jesus among us means that God actually knows our world from the inside.
Lauren Winner is an Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Winner was born to a Jewish father and a Southern Baptist mother and was raised Jewish. She converted to Christianity while doing her Master’s degree at Cambridge University. She completed her doctoral work at Columbia University in 2006. Listen to what she writes in her book Girl Meets God,
The very first thing I liked about Christianity, long before it ever occurred to me to go to church or say the creed or call myself a Christian, was the Incarnation, the idea that God lowered himself and became a man so that we could relate to him better. In Christianity, God got to be both a distant and transcendent Father god, and a present and immanent Son god who walked among us. Christians, unlike Jews, spent their time talking to a God who knew from experience what it was like to get hungry, to go swimming, to miss a best friend.
The incarnation means that God comes to us in our moments of deepest insecurity, our moments when life has gut-punched us so that we can’t breathe and then chews us up and spits us out like a piece of used up chewing gum and says, “I know.”
This Christmas perhaps we won’t sit in the presence of an artist, but we can stand amazed in the presence of Jesus…
and wonder how he could love me,
a sinner, condemned, unclean.
How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful
is my Savior’s love for me!
Jesus was wearing a red robe of sacrifice on the cross, was wrapped in the black robe of death and placed in a cold grave, but three days later He walked out that grave wearing the white robe of glory.
The Savior is present and He wants to sit with you this Christmas.
Thank you Joe, you put a smile on my face today.