Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Presentation of Our Lord

I have a particular nativity scene that I set up at Christmas that my mother got for me in Peru one year. Each of the clay figurines of the nativity scene—Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus on a hay-pile and two animals—are designed and painted to look like the Qero Indians who live high in the Andes Mountains there. So many nativity scenes put on display at Christmas-time try hard to make the figurines look like the real Bible characters. This one doesn’t. Its makers took the meaning of the incarnation so seriously that they turn the Holy Family into a Qero village scene. For example, Mary has braids and wears a small hat, just like most Qero women do. Baby Jesus is shown looking like a baby Qero Indian: he is tightly wrapped in a papoose, much like many native peoples conveniently bind up their babies to keep them warm and easy to transport. My favorite aspect of the nativity scene is actually the two animals: a llama and an ox, two animals that Qero Indians tend. Nativity stories in the gospels don’t specifically say animals were present at Jesus’ birth, but if there were, I highly doubt llamas were there. They are only found high in the Andes Mountains where the Qero Indians live. At first sight, this Peruvian nativity scene seems a little strange, but soon it becomes endearing. Instead of imagining what the Mary, Joseph, and Jesus looked like and might have worn as a first-century Jewish family and forming their figurines in that image, the Qero Indians astutely observe that if Jesus was, in fact, God made human, he could have looked something like them—human that they are.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us this about God’s action in Jesus Christ: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death…[Christ] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a faithful high priest in the service of God…” (2:14-15, 17). No matter what our nativity scenes at Christmas look like, the message of the incarnation is that the God who has created us—whether we are Pittsburghers or Qero Indians or first-century Jews—has become like us in order to save us from death and sin.
To be sure, the story of Israel and Jesus’ Jewish identity should not be forgotten: Jesus was indeed an Israelite born to a certain Mary 2000 years ago in Bethlehem and not in Peru. Nevertheless, the Qero Indian nativity scene reminds me of this powerful truth that always needs repeating: God has put on human flesh. Jesus is born for us and presented to us as one of us. Our God is not so distant and removed that he does not want to get physically involved in the often messy goings-on of this creation—like an offensive coordinator in a football game who stays way up in the booth calling shots on his Motorola radio system. God doesn’t even coach us from the sidelines. Rather, we know that God actually gets in the game with us. God loves us immensely—enough to become like us in each and every way and bear the bruises and scrapes and sufferings of human existence. He experiences childhood. He learns from his parents and follows Jewish law. He lives under a harsh government and experiences the loss of several friends. He knows betrayal, wedding bliss, and temptation. But although the life of Jesus Christ is filled with these very common and regularly painful human experiences, none of them is undertaken simply so that God may relate to humankind and as one former president would say, “feel our pain.” As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, Jesus becomes like us in every respect so that he may be a “faithful and merciful high priest to God and make atonement for our sins.” God undertakes the human experience through Christ—even to the point of death on the cross—so that we may then be free of death and sin and undertake God’s experience. That is our salvation. That is our redemption. God becomes human so that humans may become divine.
That is what the writer of Hebrews is saying to us, and why I so enjoy the message behind the Qero Indian nativity scene: no matter what pain and trial and torment we feel as humans on this earth, Christ has felt it, lived it, endured it—and been crushed by it, too. However, we also must remember that he has conquered it all and is risen from the dead. Jesus is presented to us so that we may ultimately be like him, even in his risen glory.
That is why it is indeed good and right—it is salutary for our human existence—for us to gather at the table of God’s priestly sacrifice and eat and drink of these common, earthy gifts as often as we can. Sharing the Eucharist every week is one gracious way in which we are presented again and again with the message of His Presentation: God has given us his very life. Gathering in the temple as Jesus’ true family and partaking of God’s Word in Scripture and the sacraments are akin to keeping a nativity scene out year-round. We are offered the very salvation that God has prepared in the presence of you and me and the Qero Indians and all peoples everywhere, a true light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people, Israel.

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