December 22, 2008

Becoming Real  
by Sarah Jennings, Crosswalk.com Family Editor

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us).” Matthew 1: 18-24

The story is about a toy rabbit given to a boy for Christmas. The rabbit befriends one of the oldest, wisest toys in the nursery – The Skin Horse. One day, he asks the Skin Horse what it takes to become a real rabbit instead of a sawdust-filled bunny. Here is an excerpt of their conversation from Margery Williams’ classic tale, The Velveteen Rabbit:

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

My stepmother, a family counselor, would smile at the Skin Horse’s words to his young friend. She approaches her calling as more than patching up broken lives, but helping each person become what she calls “real.” A “real” person is one who has shed all that is false and embraced what is true and pure. A theological word for becoming “real” would be sanctification.

I am often tempted to approach Christmas similar to the way I’d like to approach sanctification – as something that happened all at once and can now be relegated to a box from the past, marked “done.” Yet this Christmas, I am struck with how the first Christmas is very closely tied to our ongoing, sometimes painful, journey towards “realness.”

That’s because Christmas is the day God became Real. Oh, sure God’s always been real, but on that day, he became real to us in a special way. He entered the world as a baby that could be cuddled and held by people like you and me.

Theologians have a fancy word for God becoming Real. It's called the Incarnation.

What is so amazing about the Incarnation is that God didn’t merely become similar to us -- He wasn’t like an angel who experimented with a few human experiences. No, God became fully human, through and through. And he didn’t just become human to empathize with us (although He certainly does), but to quite literally transform us, through and through. You see, if God hadn’t become Real, you and I would have no hope of becoming real.

St. Athanasius, a great defender of the doctrine of the Incarnation explained it like this:

“He sanctified the body by being in it … Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.”

Even before the Cross, Jesus’ birth began the reversal of the divorce between creation and the Divine caused by Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. By becoming man, God didn’t merely descend to our human level but lifted humanity up, preparing us to share in God's kingdom. Sin and its effects on the body and soul met their match in the mere existence of this Child. 

The miracle of the Incarnation not only changes humanity’s relationship with God, but also with each other. After the Fall, Adam and Eve hid from one another. Family life was splintered, tainted by our first parents.

Now, can you imagine the first Christmas? Mary and Joseph, husband and wife, held God Incarnate in their arms. This humble couple peered into the Face of the very same God who, in the Old Testament scriptures, could not be directly looked upon or touched. The same God from whom their first mother and father fled in shame. Jesus’ quiet birth to Mary and Joseph elevated marriage and family life beyond its natural and legal purposes to a calling that glorifies God and unites us with each other.

“Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:9)

On the first Christmas, Jesus, Mary and Joseph still had a journey ahead of them. You and I also have a journey ahead of us – we are not finished products yet. As we walk life’s road, shedding the old for the new along the way, let’s imitate Mary by “treasuring up” the miracle of the Incarnation in our hearts. Meditate on the fact that Our God became Man so that all that was once lost could be restored, and we as His people, could share in His glory. That, my friend, is as real as it gets.

Intersecting Faith & Life: The words of the Skin Horse are a reminder to me that the path to holiness in Christ can be a humbling road, but well worth it. Do you have any "sharp edges" or fragile tendencies hindering your journey? Ask God what sins, habits, or attitudes you need to discard this Christmas to make room for His sanctifying grace in your life. 

Further Reading

Colossians 3: 17 – 20
Luke 1: 26-38
Luke 2: 22 - 40
The Beauty of an Ugly Christmas Tree, by Whitney Hopler