the mystery of particularity and the gift of participation

It’s Advent. For those of you for whom that word conjures images of a felt Christmas tree calendar or bits of cheap foiled chocolate hidden in cardboard, you are not alone. For centuries Advent calendars have helped to calm the restlessness of children waiting for Santa. It’s funny that we teach children so young that waiting is hard and deserving of reward. Well, waiting is hard! And I like chocolate! And for, perhaps, as un-spiritual as a felt Christmas tree feels, Advent actually IS all about waiting.

We are waiting for the coming of God.

It’s kinda like Waiting for Godot but with a better ending.

And the completely radical thing about the Jesus story, is that we’re waiting for God to come in the most vulnerable form. A human baby.

No matter your root faith tradition, perhaps you were taught that to be “religious” meant that one forgoes the needs of the flesh. That the longings of your mind and soul far outweighs the longings of your body. Body = bad Spirit = good. Well, that doesn’t really compute when we look at the incarnation. God didn’t come in the form of the smartest person’s thoughts or the most moral person’s spirit - nope. God is revealed in the flesh and blood of a baby.


If you’d like some Christmas music that expresses this, check out Rob Mathes’ album William the Angel. (my hands down favorite Christmas album)

For my “spiritual but not religious” friends, try Shawn Colvin’s album Holiday Songs and Lullabies.

One of the things we first look at in spiritual direction is what your images of God are. Is God the grey old man in the sky, far off and detached from our lives? Is God the figure that punishes us when we do wrong? Or is God just a great big cuddly Santa Claus that loves us, but is simply there to give us what we want, when we want it?

One of my teachers at the Living School, Richard Rohr says, “Grace is not something that God gives us; Grace is who God is.” Another of my LS teachers, Jim Finley, says God is so purely Love that were God to stop loving us even for an instant - we would cease to exist. These are deep existential metaphysical truths. Perhaps a bit hard to wrap our heads around – if not impossible. God is not creative; God is Creativity. God is not patient; God is Patience. The distinction is nuanced.

We cannot know God in the abstract, so we are invited into God’s self in the particular. We can see God in the patience that a three year old shows as he waits for his turn to play with a toy. We experience God when we agonize over the perfect word for a poem. We even feel God in the unconditional love that our dog gives us as they cuddle into us on the couch. The particular is the doorway to universal mystery. Each creature, no matter who we are, what we believe or where we’ve come from, is an expression of God. An incarnate reality of the divine.

I’m an actor. My business has always been incarnation. To act is to inhabit, to embody another person’s story; and the work of theater is to tell a particular story that helps to reveal a universal truth. All art really. The enemy of good art is vaguery; rather economy, specificity and precision are most likely to lead us to what my theater teacher in college referred to as an annunciation, an announcement of an incarnation. A holy embodiment.

Who has been the greatest embodiment of God for you?

For most children, our relationships with adults begins to form our understanding of who God is. For me, God was my Grandmother. Ethel Marie was a small, quiet woman who loved me fiercely. She was a pastor’s wife and a homemaker. She’d wake up early to wax the kitchen floor before people woke up. She taught Sunday school on felt boards. She told me secrets that made me feel close to her. When she died I wrote this poem which, looking back on now, revealed my understanding of incarnation. Here’s just a few bits of the poem.

God is found in the wet kiss 
Of an old woman. 
Her eyes deceptively sparkling, 
Not with saccharine teeth and powdered cheeks
But with faith pumped up
In the hump of her back. 
And yet her hands,
Thick knuckled and spotted
Are strong praying with aplomb, 
A voice without the rickets of age. 
The richest of men, the most powerful women
Are but a brief mist sighed in an instant
Compared to the solid eternity
Of my grandmother.

In Lacy Finn Borgo’s terrific book Spiritual Conversations with Children, Borgo teaches us how children are fully capable of participation in this incarnational reality.

“A child’s picture of God is formed in the beginning by the most powerful adults in their lives.”

Adults, she says, cannot force a child to recognize Love’s divine invitation, but we can be a listening presence that can offer space for connections to occur. I highly recommend this book not only to people with children, but to those of us who grew up in any kind of faith tradition where coercion by fear was a tactic. On more than one occasion as I read her descriptions of encounters with young children, I found myself swallowing hard.

“Becoming awake to God, to their own belovedness, and the belovedness of others is a child’s lifelong journey into the heart of the Community of Love.”

Finally, however, I don’t want to leave this Advent reflection with merely a sweet image of baby Jesus. Cause here’s the thing. Jesus grew up. He was a radical. He shifted everything around. You know, “the last shall be first” and all that. The oblate priest Ronald Rolheiser wrote that Jesus wasn’t just a 30 year experiment in incarnation. No, he was the invitation. Whatever your faith tradition, whatever your belief system - I think we can attest to the fact that we were all created with a sense of longing for purpose. We have in us the spark of compassion and love for our fellow man. We have hands and feet and a body that can be used to make the world a better, more humane, more just place. And that, my friends, is the incarnational Christmas story.