As we approach the end of our hike, one of my grandsons with me excitedly presents a long strip of sycamore bark he has found on the ground. On our outings, we’re always on alert for anything extraordinary. He noticed this because of the two holes. They’re spaced perfectly for it to be a mask.
So, of course, I have them both try it on. I share with them the photos I take, and we agree, it’s funny and a bit weird to see them wearing a tree-bark mask.
Such an odd disguise.
As I ponder it, I’m reminded of a line from a Christmas hymn. “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see.” That’s precisely the problem with picturing the nativity. How do we see the divinity of Jesus through the veil of his newborn body?
I appreciate the tension early painters of the Christ’s birth must have felt in trying to depict him. Do you emphasize his humanity? Or his deity? Because they’re both there. Those early depictions superimposed glory that wasn’t in the narrative. Today, Christian artists want just back-to-basics realism.
Writers of apocryphal gospels solved this is by adding more of the miraculous to the story. They wanted the newborn Christ to be more otherworldly. So, they invented far-fetched tales, often stretching credulity to the breaking point.
For instance, The Syriac Infancy Gospel relates that when held by a woman, the baby Jesus drives Satan from her. When two thieves show the family kindness, infant Jesus explains to his mother that these are the very thieves (named Titus and Dumachus, in case you were curious) who will be crucified next to him in thirty years. And most applicable to my musing today, the Christ child calls forth a spring from a sycamore tree so that Mary can wash his clothes.
And note, these are just on the trip down to Egypt!
We do best to let the mystery linger. For it’s in that “How-can-this-be?” tension where wonder thrives.
“…the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child… The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.” J.I. Packer, Knowing God
Augustine beautifully captures the wonder of the seeming contradiction:
the Creator of Mary born of Mary,
the Son of David yet Lord of David,
the Seed of Abraham who existed before Abraham,
the Fashioner of this earth fashioned on this earth,
the Creator of heaven created as Man under the light of heaven.
Peter tells us that “Even angels long to look into these things.” (1 Peter 1:12)
In the end, the only true response is astonishment.
I found this gallery of worshippers of the Christ child during my recent walk through the National Gallery. I can see myself as one of them: mulling over the mystery that leads me to adore the One born to deliver me from sin.
For he is a wondrous Savior, even as a baby boy.
A perfect God, a perfect man,
A mystery which no man can
Attain to, tho' he's e'er so wise,
Till he ascent above the skies. Welsh Christmas carol, 17th or 18th century
Lord, our pitiful brains cannot comprehend your willingness to be “fashioned on this earth.” But how we love you for doing it! By this mystery, draw our hearts toward you.
Reader: in your celebration of the Incarnation, do you emphasize the humanity of the story or the supernatural glory?