A “Marvellous Exchange”

By Canon James Mustard

Hail and behold! What a marvelous exchange
in the lives of men, that the Gentle Shaper
of humankind should take up sinless flesh
in a woman

(Advent Lyric XII, The Exeter Book trans. Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter)

 
Recently, I heard the radio serialisation of Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s new book “God: an anatomy.” A professor of the University of Exeter, she describes in God’s body as described in the Hebrew Bible, exploring it as metaphor and the ways in which the idea, perhaps even the image of God’s body shares much in common with other ancient deities of the near Middle-East. Her main contention is that it is difficult to hold onto the traditional idea of God as “invisible” when that directly contradicts much of the language with which we describe him – God’s “outstretched arm”, God’s “footstool,” “the voice of the Lord shakes the cedar trees,” and so on. Far from being described as “invisible,” God is mostly described to us as a mighty colossus! 
 
That image has helped me approach this Christmas season afresh.  The “marvellus exchange” of Christmas, of God becoming human, is so bizarre, scandalous even, that it can be appreciated anew each year. Mostly, I have tended to focus upon the idea of God who is invisible and creates all things out of “nothing,” becoming “something”.
 
But Prof Stavrakopoulou’s book has made be consider Christmas from another perspective. For the birth of Jesus gives us the image of God, the mighty colossus, becoming tiny. God, whose voice shakes the cedar trees, now gurgles gently at Mary’s breast.  God’s outstretched arm, which, in the psalms casts down thunderbolts and flames of fire, now reaches out for the Ox and the Ass. God, who led his people through the Red Sea and out of the Babylonian Exile, will flee into Egypt as an infant refugee from the tyranny of Herod.
 
The whole Christmas Story turns on its head every previous image of God as described in the scriptures. All might, majesty, mystery and power has been exchanged for smallness, vulnerability, and meekness. The Christian faith and the Gospel are entirely rooted in the paradox of strength being found in weakness. The infant Jesus begins and ends his earthly life completely without power, exchanging the manger for the Cross. He begins his ministry in an animals’ feeding trough and finally gives himself to us as the food of the Eucharist.
 
The Christmas story reminds us yet again of the priority we must give to the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. The recent heartbreaking scenes of refugees crossing the English Channel remind us that many in our own time still flee from tyranny. However difficult these years have been for all of us – and they have been very difficult – the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus is most likely to be found among those migrants. Jesus identifies always with those who are weak, rather than those who are strong, the tiny rather than the magnificent.
 
There is a tendency for such words to read a bit like a well-meaning editorial in the Guardian.  But the new recognition I have gained this Christmas is that the challenge of Christmas – of identifying with those who are most vulnerable above all others – is shared by God.  For at Christmas, God casts off his magnificent body and takes on the most vulnerable of bodies, in the most dangerous of places, in the most controversial of ways. In as much as the Christmas story has much to teach us about our priorities, it also is a steep learning curve for God!
 
The poet above refers to God as the “Gentle Shaper”. This must be a reference to God’s intimate fashioning of Adam out of clay, cradling him in his arms and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life (alluding to the image of a shepherd with a newborn lamb). The birth of Jesus is an opportunity for God to begin his relationship with us afresh, reminding himself of the intimacy with which he created us. His magnificent arms cradling the newborn Adam.
 
May we, this Christmas, with all its joys and challenges, be ready for a similar “marvellous exchange” in our lives. May we become weak so we might give strength, and make those who are most tiny and vulenrable our priority in the coming year.

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