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A week ago today I was at the St. Cloud Hospital. For about the last year and a half, my dad has been struggling with the symptoms of congestive heart failure, and a few weeks ago it was finally determined that he needed to have bypass surgery. We were all relieved when they were able to squeeze him in before Christmas so he could get the procedure behind him and begin his recovery as quickly as possible. So last weekend, my husband Oby and I drove to St. Cloud to be with my dad and support my mother as she waited anxiously through the whole ordeal. I should stop right now to say the surgery went well. My dad received great care. He has been home resting since Thursday, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him again later today.
I didn’t know much about what bypass surgery entails until I showed up at the hospital and began hearing exactly what would happen. They knew he had two different blockages that would need to be addressed, and I was able to see on an illustration how one blood vessel already in his chest and another from his leg would be used to bypass the blocked arteries and allow blood to flow through his heart more freely. The part I hadn’t fully comprehended coming into the surgery—and the part that still takes my breath away each time I think about it—was that they would need to stop his heart to do all this work. During that time, for about two hours, his heart and lung functions would be sustained by a machine, which is just completely mind-boggling to me. The surgeon would get to work making the repairs, literally taking my dad’s life into his hands. When the bypass work was complete, they would restart his heart, make sure everything was working properly, and wrap things up.
The morning of the surgery, the operating room nurse came in to answer all of our questions and make sure we knew what to expect that day. Leading up to that moment, cardiac specialists had performed any number of tests and some other less-invasive procedures to discover where there were blockages and determine the level of severity. It’s amazing what they can learn about your heart by putting you through a stress test on a treadmill, injecting dye into your bloodstream, and taking some X-rays. But the O.R. nurse told us that morning that the surgeon wouldn’t fully understand what was going on until he could get inside and touch my dad’s heart directly; until he could hold the heart in his hand and use his fingers to gently examine each artery. The surgeon has learned from decades of experience performing cardiac surgery how to identify blockages, his own delicate touch sensing any hardening or coarseness that signal there is a problem. Modern medicine has given us all sorts of tools for diagnosing diseases, but at the end of the day, the single most effective diagnostic device in the surgeon’s toolkit is his own hand, his fingers, his sense of touch. The surgeon needs to get up close and see things for himself. Nothing else will do. Healing, it turns out, is hands-on work.
This is Christmas: The story of a hands-on Healer, a God who isn’t satisfied to stay at a distance but is determined to get up close, who understands nothing else will do.
Last night this sanctuary was packed as Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found themselves embroiled in the commotion of childbirth. Jesus was born, the multitudes of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” and shepherds arrived to pay homage. The night reached its peak with our exuberant singing accompanied by glorious brass and the beautiful choir, and we were sent on our way riding a wave of joy, carrying our glorias from this sanctuary to the places where we gathered with loved ones to continue our celebration. It’s a different scene this morning. The crowds have dispersed. The shepherds have gone back to their flocks. The angels are nowhere to be found. Mary and Joseph are alone with their newborn, exhausted. And we are invited in the stillness of a frigid winter morning to ponder a mystery, that the Word became flesh and now dwells among us.
As the dust settles from the chaos of last night’s celebration, we sit in quiet wonder this morning at the thought of God becoming human and living with us. But the story of Word-made-flesh is so much more shocking even than that. It’s not just that the God we profess became human. What’s even more amazing is that, in doing so, God chose not a family of status and privilege but a poor teenage girl whose people were oppressed by a foreign regime with no interest in their long and storied past. The girl and the man she loved were forced to travel for miles to fill out their papers, and then in a city without enough housing they were thrown out on the streets and left to fend for themselves. That night the girl give birth to their baby boy, and his crib was a feeding trough he shared with hungry cattle. Despite his uncertain circumstances, Jesus’ birth brought his parents great joy, and his life, like all newborn life, held such possibility and promise. But those in power shunned his people as “other” and viewed them with suspicion. From his first moments on this planet, Jesus—the Word made flesh—led a precarious existence. The Word became flesh and dwelt among those most distressed and afraid.
I’ve been captivated this season by this Christmas reflection written by the 20th-century Catholic theologian Thomas Merton. He writes: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited… His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, [and] exterminated… [Christ] is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.”
For so many people today there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. Immigrants and refugees—many of whom are our neighbors, our coworkers, our students, and our friends—long for a place to call home. They live in a constant state of dread, worried they will be separated from their families and sent to a place that holds no future for them. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are still reeling from hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, jockeying for meager disaster aid that is spread far too thin. We’ve lost loved ones this year, some of whom died much too young, and others of us have come face-to-face with our own mortality as we’ve received difficult diagnoses and struggled to reimagine our future. And nearly everyone today seems worn down and demoralized by the coarseness of our political discourse, fearing we may never recover from such a degradation of civic life.
And yet, the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Healing is hands-on work, and God understands nothing else will do. As our bishop Patricia Lull wrote in her Christmas letter this year, “Nothing in our human brokenness, weariness, sadness, or cynicism could keep God away. Nothing in our world—not cruelty nor greed, violence nor despair—could dissuade God from coming to us in Jesus Christ.” God does not stand back at a distance but insists on getting up close in it with us, holding our hearts, feeling for places that are hardened or closed off, hindering life, in need of repair. And then God goes to work, mending what’s broken and bringing new life.
The Word became flesh when God had had enough—enough suffering, enough injustice, enough exclusion, enough. By taking on flesh God calls us to say “enough,” to put flesh on our own hopes and dreams for a kinder and more compassionate world, for less needless suffering, for more humanity in our life together. The Word made flesh beckons us to a more expansive vision of what it means to be human—to shed all that chokes off life and bring to birth new possibilities for our human community.
He still has a long road ahead, but one week out from surgery, my dad is doing much better. If his experience is anything like that of countless others, he can expect many more years of renewed energy and vitality. And even though he will one day pass the way of all the earth, the transformed, healed life that Christ brings will be his, and yours, and ours, and all the world’s, for all eternity. Thanks be to God.
Patricia Lull, “And Still Christmas Comes,” December 21, 2017, http://www.spas-elca.org/and-still-christmas-comes/.
Thomas Merton, “The Time of the End Is the Time of No Room” in Raids on the Unspeakable.