Immanuel, God with us.
This promise has been the church of England’s theme for Advent this year – and now, at this midnight hour, the first hour of Christmas, we are celebrating its fulfilment, its truth.
God with us – a simple picture of a baby.
But every baby is a mystery… reminded of this about 8 weeks ago, as on the day she was born my granddaughter gazed at the world for the first time through eyes that held all the potential and mystery of human life… so unfocused, so dark a blue, and so full of promise….. Just so the newborn Jesus must have gazed at his parents, and at all those other most surprising visitors to the stable…… but behind his eyes lay even greater power and mystery – the creator of all that is, of stars and planets and volcanoes, of primroses and olive trees, kittens and camels and reindeer – now seeing from within his creation…. blurred faces and lights…. powerless to move, dependent for his very life on his mother, his father, the kindness of strangers.
Reflecting on this mystery, wondering again how we can begin to comprehend it, I’ve found two passages that may help us with what it means for Jesus to be with us … both as it happens using the image of a bird… a creature that can move in two or even three elements – air, earth and water.
The first is from The Shack, by William Young: the figure who represents God the Father speaks for all three persons for the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood. It would be like a bird, whose nature it is to fly, choosing only to walk and remain grounded. He doesn’t stop being the bird, but it does alter his experience of life significantly. Although by nature he is fully God, Jesus is fully human and lives as such. While never losing the innate ability to fly, he chooses moment-by-moment to remain grounded. That is why his name is Immanuel, God with us, or God with you, to be more precise.”
While never losing the innate ability to fly, he chooses moment-by-moment to remain grounded. For us – to be with us, alongside us…. to bring us to eternal life through his love and sacrifice.
The beauty and love of this moment are deepened and, yes, darkened by the cost of the sacrifice – Jesus’ willingness to accept the restrictions of humanity, the shadow of the cross in the darkness beyond the stable…..
The other piece I found is a poem written by the friend of a friend, about a particular bird in a particular place, a dipper, on the River Bride that flows through Dorset to the Jurassic coast…. you may have seen dippers – they are neat grey and black birds with upturned tails who live in and around fast flowing streams – you recognise them, as the name suggests, because they are constantly bobbing up and down as they search for food. And – this was new to me – they are able to walk into and under the water as they search, emerging again to continue their bobbing on the rocks…..
Sometimes a bird comes to the Bride,
Dark winged, with paler underside.
The dipper is the creature’s name,
A water bird that none can tame.
It dips and dips and dips again,
Submerging all its tiny frame
And walking on the river floor,
At home where icy currents pour.
Half in water, half in air,
This bowing bird may be compared
To Christ, whose person did combine
Two natures, human and divine.
In him all dark and light are held,
In him the air and water meld
For standing at the makers side
He saw all elements collide.
But when for us Christ came to earth,
The spirit brooded at the birth,
The virgin’s waters they did break
And Jesus his first breath did take.
Just as the dipper bows his head,
so Christ consents to join the dead,
Submerging into regions rare
Then re-emerging into air.
So bow and bow and bow once more
To Christ who walked upon death’s floor
And surfaced at the makers call.
Now bow and bow, you dippers all.
Now bow and bow, you dippers all….. whereas in our first passage Christ becomes like us by deliberately restricting himself to one element – in the poem we share his ability to live in two worlds at once. And so we do – the kingdom of God is here and now if we will only choose to see it… in the beauty of creation, in friendship and love and family, in memories that we treasure and in the future we hope for and work to bring about.
In the beauty and pain of the Christmas story – Immanuel, God with us.
So bow and bow, you dippers all.