By Paul Koch –
Early into our trip to the Holy Land back in October I noticed that as I would enter into some ancient church to take a few pictures and examine the details of the architecture and art forms throughout the building, my wife would often disappear from my side. She would often make a cursory pass through the building and then slip back outside. When I found her sitting on a bench outside one of the old church buildings she confessed that it was a just too much. These holy sites were covered by old churches, most of which had newer churches built over the tops of them, and inside there were icon screens and oil lamps and gold candlesticks and paintings on the walls and what appeared to be levels upon levels of manmade coverings over these places where our Lord walked this earth. What she wanted was far more simple than the artistry and craftsmanship we had taken in. What she wanted to see was just some dirt: some dirt where, perhaps, once upon a time our Lord walked.
Now eventually we found some dirt. We sat for a long time and cherished this small piece of protected land that holds the only remains of the Garden of Gethsemane. Sitting there looking at ancient and monstrously huge olive trees, we began to talk about the lack of dirt at these holy sites. On the one hand if there weren’t churches built upon them, those sites would most likely have been forgotten to the sands of time. But the overly elaborate structures built upon them say much more about us than they do about our God who spoke His words and performed His miracles upon that very ground. In fact, it seemed that the goal, whether it was ever spoken or not, was to cover up the dirt: to hide it away from sight, to make the place worthy of the pilgrims who came. To just have dirt, to just look upon olive trees in a small garden would be shameful. So men busy their hands to hide the shame of a God who would spend time in such a garden.
We like our God to be a God of power and glory. We like Him to be a God that is unscathed by our dirt and grime of His creation. Deep down I think we would prefer if He just stayed above it all. We like the God that is presented to us at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” See that’s what we like. We like the eternal Word, the Word that Creates all things. The Word of God spoke into being all that we know: the oceans, the mountains, and even the dirt at the Garden of Gethsemane. A Word that creates out of nothing is worthy of cathedrals and the very best our artisans can achieve, for their work is but a reflection of His greater art. This is the type of God we hope to find by stretching out our arms and gazing heavenward.
We are told that in this Word there was life “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” See, that is what we like to hear. A God that gives life. A God that is the light of men. Even in our darkness, even in our broken and sinful world, the light still shines. When we talk about our God we don’t need to talk about the dirt and the grime. We don’t need to allow for His shame for He is the true light that enlightens everyone. In fact, John the Baptist himself bears witness to the coming of this light. John may have been dirty and shameful, eating locust and wild honey while baptizing people in the filthy waters of the Jordan River, but he isn’t the living Word of God. John directs others to the true light. The light stays above the fray. The light is worthy of our honor and praise, for the light shines in unstained glory.
But then the story of our God takes a sudden and unpredictable turn in John’s Gospel. For this life giving light, this creative Word which gives us the right to become the children of God, stops hovering above the dirt and grime of our world and comes crashing right into it. We read, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us! This is the unexpected move for our God. The god of Islam is always above the dirt, above the shame of our broken world. The pathway of the Hindus or the Buddhists or any number of spiritual traditions is to always rise above the dirt, to escape it, to remove it from you at any cost. But our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Mary and Joseph, the God of the holy apostles and evangelists has come down into the dirt.
The glory of God isn’t found in looking above or in searching the heavens, but in the flesh and blood of the one who calls us brothers and sisters. We may try to hide His shame, but no amount of beautiful buildings and inspiring artwork can cover the blood and the dirt and the grime of God’s coming to seek and save the lost. He was born of Mary, born in the same way we’ve all been born, cold and feeble, weak and needing care. He cried out on that holy night as He embraced the creation He had once spoken into being, while nursing at his mother’s breast.
Surely, this is too shameful. Surely, this cannot be our God all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. But this is Him! This is our Savior. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory. The eternal Word of God does not remain unscathed by our dirt and grime. He is not therefore deterred by your sin, by your dirt, by your shame. He seems to know that to save you, to pay for your trespasses, to set you free, means He will need to get more than a little dirty. It means that the living Word of God must get downright bloody.
That child was born to take your sins as his own, to repent perfectly for them, to die because of them, and to set you free from them. You see, Christmas is about God getting dirty to save each and every one of you.
We may try and hide the shame of our God. We may build shrines and churches over the dirt He walked upon. We may devise schemes of looking heavenward to capture the light and life of men, but our God is blatant in His embrace of His creation. Not only was He born of Mary, not only did He suffer, die and rise again for us, but our God continues to come. He continues to come into the dirt and grime of our lives. He comes in washing of Holy Baptism; He comes in, with and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper; He comes in that living Word which has never stopped proclaiming the forgiveness of sins for you and me.
And you know, in the end, I don’t think they could really completely hide the shame of our God by those magnificent structures throughout Israel. Sure they could convert the bare dirt and rock into grand buildings. They could cover it all in gold and fine linen, but the dirt always had a way of showing up anyway. For every time I set foot in one of those places the shameful work of God was on display. For who am I that I should be called a child of God? Who are we that we should be declared His saints, and yet we are. Our Lord was born into the dirt to give new life to each and every one of you.