Garrison Keillor’s description of Aunt Marie is one I cannot seem to shake this season. Repeatedly, she has come to mind in discordant moments of Christmas preparation, somewhere between errands at the mall and lyrics that put a stop to them: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining,/ Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” No description of the Incarnation more readily makes the common stressors of Christmas seem less important. And yet, Aunt Marie, with her “fat little legs” and “her heavy, fur-collared coat,” has made a serious attempt to wrestle me back down to a sad, human, earthly reality. Keillor writes:
“She knew that death was only a door to the kingdom where Jesus would welcome her, there would be no crying there, no suffering, but meanwhile she was fat, her heart hurt, and she lived alone with her ill-tempered little dogs, tottering around her dark little house full of Chinese figurines and old Sunday Tribunes. She complained about nobody loving her or wanting her or inviting her to their house for dinner anymore. She sat eating pork roast, mashed potato, creamed asparagus, one Sunday at our house when she said it. We were talking about a trip to the North Shore and suddenly she broke into tears and cried, ‘You don’t care about me. You say you do but you don’t. If I died tomorrow, I don’t know as you’d even go to my funeral.’ I was six. I said, cheerfully, ‘I’d come to your funeral,’ looking at my fat aunt, her blue dress, her string of pearls, her red rouge, the powder on her nose, her mouth full of pork roast, her eyes full of tears.”(1)
Christmas says in color and sentiment what many of us already know: that the world is waiting, groaning for more, longing for redemption, for peace on earth and goodwill to humanity, for release from darkness and sin and loneliness and disillusionment, for God to come near to the world as we know it. Like Aunt Marie, this waiting is sometimes fraught with discomfort; we wait, and we sense a lonely, earthly reality. But Advent forces the experience of waiting into a different light. Our waiting need not be dehumanizing, dispiriting, as waiting often feels.
The New Testament describes it quite differently—not as a difficult means to a better end, but as part of the promise itself. Eugene Peterson writes, “Waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”(2) Waiting itself is, of course, a reminder that we are earthbound.
But so is Christ.
The Christian’s celebration of Christmas is the assurance that we wait with good reason. “The word became flesh,” wrote John, “and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God did not merely come near, he became flesh that could touch weaknesses, experience loneliness, and encounter the lowest moments of being human. He came to be with us, to move through us, to work within us. He came as small and vulnerable as humans come, getting close enough to bear the scars of our outrage and near enough to prove he would stay regardless. He came far nearer than Aunt Marie—or most of us—are yet able to recognize. “That is what incarnation means,” writes Frederick Buechner. “It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. It is undignified. But according to Christianity, it is the way things are. All religions and philosophies that deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earthbound, are themselves denied.”(3)
God became one of us, not to erase every shadow or to undo the difficulties of our humanity, but to be with us in the midst of it, to transform our spectrum of darkness by bearing a truer depth of light, to enlarge us with the joy of expectancy until the fullness of time when every hope has come to pass.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home (New York: Viking, 1987), xxi-xxii.
(2) Eugene Peterson, The Message, Romans 8:24-25.
(3) Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 169.