Christ Climbed Down
"Christ Climbed Down" is a 1958 poem railing against the holiday that has been going on outside these doors and concludes today. The first line is "Christ climbed down from His bare tree this year and ran away to where there were no rootless Christmas trees." The poem pillories everything about commercial Christmas that will never lead anyone to faith in Christ crucified. So, Christ comes down from that bear tree of the cross to get us.
It's Christmas 1986. The children's Christmas program is practicing. Phyllis comes from a difficult home and is a problem child. She wants nothing to do with the pageant, but still has to sit through practice. During dress rehearsal, she suddenly appears in the manger scene, and after sticking her hand into the manger proclaims. "It's just a doll; I felt it." The night of the pageant comes. Phyllis is quietly sitting next to her teacher till she wasn't. "She stomped her way right up to the manger, just as she had done during the rehearsal. But this time she stiffened, awestruck, then turned her eyes wide with wonder, and came hurrying back" to her teacher. Unbeknownst to Phyllis a newborn was used for the actual performance. "He's alive!" she said in a whisper that wasn't. "Like ripples in a pond, the word passed from pew to pew, all the way to the back of the sanctuary. He's alivealivealive' (Guideposts, Christmas, 23-26). Christ came down indeed.
Unlike drummer boy and Poinsettia boy, all is not lost if you have no gift to give the Christ-Child this morning. "All is truly lost when we lose a direct encounter with Christ, human and divine, in the manger, on the cross, at the resurrection, or in the Lord's Supper" (Form. for Parish Prac, 152). All is lost if we think God being born in a manger was something that happened a long time ago; a past event that has no present significance or future reality. Remember how your dad would say, "I'll stop this car and come back there, and show you how to behave?" Well, Christ Jesus climbs down off that cross out of the empty tomb and into today by Word and Sacrament to show you what it means to have a flesh and blood God.
Old calendars label today as the Feast of the Incarnation. We all know that refers to God the Son taking on flesh and blood in the Virgin's womb, but the livingness of it doesn't touch us. Historically, the church has bowed her head at the point she confesses "and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man." And historically she has kneeled before His presence in Bread and Wine, but still the reality seems ephemeral, fanciful, chimerical even. This will help. The English incarnation' is related to the Italian incarnadino which means flesh color.' Baby skin, baby rosiness, freshness pops Christmas into present reality. He's alivealivealive."
That is a thought hard to live with. Full disclosure. This is the opposite of what Norman Mailer says in a novel. He has a CIA operative say, "I felt as if it was really Christmas, even in Uruguay. I had the epiphany I always wait for as December descends into its climatic week, that feeling so hard to live without most of the year the convictionthat He may really be near" (Harlot's Ghost, 446).
No, at Christmas the thought that God may be near, may be alive is tolerable to most people, but God's close up are hard to bear the rest of the year. Both Zachariah and Mary are afraid when God's angel steps into their reality. The shepherds are sore afraid. Jesus is the Light of the World, but when that Light becomes focused in the Flesh and Blood of one Man that's intense; that's a laser; that's being at the Transfiguration; that's falling on your face and being exceedingly afraid; that's peeing your pants fear.
Why? Because the Light of Light exposes everything. There's not one thing you've ever thought, said, or did that is hidden from this Light. That's what Heb. 4:13 says, "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account." Jesus says, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of the Light because their deeds are evil." "Night Court" was a forgettable TV show. One episode, the judge sentences a vulgar, insulting, shock comedian to do his routine in the full light of the courtroom. He tries; he can't. People are embarrassed to laugh at the crudity, and he flushes with shame.
Christ climbed down today, but is He a little too close for comfort? I tell the story of fishing in Louisiana when the boy in another boat is pleading for his dad to bring the shark on the line into their boat. The father obliges. But sharks out of the water just keep on thrashing and biting. The boy's pleas to bring the shark on board quickly turned into, "Get it away; get it away; throw it back." Does "He's alivealivealive" become "He's too close close close?"
But Christ climbs down as a Baby. A baby anything is approachable. Disgusting possums, ugly coyotes, are not off-putting, let alone frightening, but attracting when young. The shepherds were sent to Bethlehem to a Baby not an industrial laser. Go to the manger not the Transfiguration when you need comfort. Luther writing to Katy from the place he would die knew she was worried. He said, "Free me from your worries. I have a caretaker who is better than you and all the angels, He lies in the cradle and rests on the Virgin's bosom" (Brecht, III, 373).
This is where we want to end up today. This is Whom we want to go home with today. And doing so is linked to the word "keep." A 1947 Christmas article says, "And we the faithful, humble in the glory of the Incarnation do not say that we spend' Christmas, or pass' Christmas. We keep' Christmas" (Guideposts Christmas, 63). That sounds great, but that's straight from Scrooge. Actually, it's Dickens. The 3rd last sentence in A Christmas Carol is "and it was always said of him [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well." Fellow Englander C. S. Lewis comments on how Dickens kept Christmas: "Even more significant is the absence from Dicken's Christmas Carol of any interest in the Incarnation. Mary, the Magi, and the Angels are replaced by spirits' of his own invention" (God in the Dock, 219).
The reality is that the true Christmas must keep us, and it does so by Christ climbing out of that manger and into our life, or more accurately into our shoes. Don't just see the Godhead veiled in flesh; see Him living life under the laws God gave to humanity. While we fail to fear, love, and trust in God above all things every day, Jesus did that without fail. While we misuse the God's holy name without thinking, Jesus always used it to pray, praise, and give thanks and called on it in ever time of trouble. While we think it a chore to hear God's Word, while we think, "I know that." The Word made Flesh held preaching and the Word of God sacred and gladly heard and learned it. Need I go on? How about the 6th Commandment? That is a laser light that exposes the sore spot of every human heart. Jesus didn't fall, trip, or even stumble here as we do. Though tempted in all ways just as we are, Jesus sinned in none of the disgusting ways we do.
Christ climbed up out of the manger into our shoes and then up on cross. Even on Christmas itself, this is where it's all headed. The shepherds were told that this day in the city of David their Savior is born. You can't save sinners apart from suffering. Not too many days from now Simeon is going to tell Mary "a sword will pierce your own soul too." That means one will pierce Jesus' first. And we know that because we sing it at Christmas, "Nails, spear shall pierce Him through/ The cross be borne for me, for you." It is no poetic picture but reality when one author writes that the Babe of Bethlehem "turned in the sleep of that hallowed night, His pure, pale face toward Gethsemane" (Conservative Reformation, 38).
Thoughts like this aren't Christmas downers, killers, or humbugs. This is the Christian's Christmas. This is why we are celebrating. Not that a baby is born, but God is born to save us. And to save flesh and blood sinners, He needed flesh and blood. I already told you how incarnate' is related to the Italian for flesh color.' It's also related to the word blood, and it is the answer to Lady Macbeth's cry of "out damned spot." It's found in a scene where her husband cries out in torment, "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/ Cleanse from my hand?/ No, this my hand will rather./ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/ Making the green one red (II, 2, 4).
Macbeth says rather than the ocean washing his hand of the king's blood, his blood red hand would turn all the green oceans red. Lady Macbeth enters at this point and says in effect, "My hands are as red as your, but I would be ashamed if my heart were as pale and weak." There's the rub. Some people need no more of Christmas than a yearend celebration of good will among men, food, fun, presents and parties. For them, Christ need not have come down into the manger by means of a Virgin's Womb, climbed out of the manger to live their lives, climbed up on the cross to die their guilty death, or climbed down into Water, Words, Bread, and Wine to cleanse their blood red souls. But for those who know real guilt; for those who know their sinners more than sands upon the ocean floor and that all the water in the ocean won't wash them clean, they need real Christmas.
This goes back to Macbeth saying his bloody hand will make "the multitudinous seas incarnadine "rather than wash them. "Incarnadine" is the word for bright crimson or pinkish red color. It travels from Latin by way of Italian and French into English where we get incarnate. So, when we're talking incarnation, we're talking blood. We don't want a bloodlust Christianity, neither do we want a bloodless. We need a God who incarnated Himself in pink skin with red blood coursing through His veins in order to redeem us lost and condemned creatures.
That's what we celebrate today. Christ came down incarnated by the Holy Ghost in the Virgin Mary. Christ came down to go up on a cross to die, but Christ came down from that bare tree to give His flesh and blood to our flesh and blood to keep us rooted in heaven's eternal celebration rather than earth's passing holiday. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Feast of the Incarnation (20161225)