“Perhaps the problem is that we don’t know what the meaning of this holiday, of Jesus’ pushing into the world, is. If we did, we wouldn’t have to worry about consumerism; if we knew what the Incarnation meant, we’d be preoccupied with awe that we wouldn’t notice all the shopping.”
Lauren F. Winner, “Girl Meets God”
We’ve got enough corn meal on the bottom of our oven to prove we live in a bread house of sorts: Dave’s always letting dough rise in a bowl; kneading something soft. I ruin any recipe with yeast, but he can make miracles of the stuff with some flour. He’ll break a heel off a fresh loaf, smear it with butter and entice me to eat right before dinner. Yes, a house of bread, this is: a Bethlehem, if you will, for that’s the translation of the town. “Nothing in Scripture, even the names of birthplace towns, is coincidence,” Winner writes. Let me give away a key point: the births of our three were not divine; no star hangs overhead, no Magi are expected.
But still, our house of bread is as good a place as any to create something new, I guess, and to break it and share it. This borrowed home of ours out in the middle of Nowhere, Michigan, is one of the last places one might go to find something remarkable. Milwaukee would’ve made more sense; Chicago, Cincinnati — any would’ve been more upwardly mobile of us. No one even spells correctly the name of our new village. Here, today, is where I land, though. Here, I’ll quit the reference to the real Bethlehem and notice the temperature of our own skins in our own living rooms, 2000-plus years and an ocean from Royal David’s City.
Three pieces of bread toast in the kitchen now. Daughters with a stomach bug sprawl on sleeping bags at my feet. I marvel over the hard work of the expectation of Advent, and the hard work of the trudge toward hope, for me. I’ve made gifts for the youngest two, but the oldest — I can’t think of a thing to make, and it nags my mind, draws me from Bethlehem.
Can I be honest? The real Bethlehem and what happened over there sometimes really does feel unreal, or surreal, or unbelievable, I’m not sure which word or what combination to use. I don’t doubt the story. I only mean … Bethlehem is farther than I’m likely to ever travel, and Incarnation — God in the flesh — that just sounds so long ago. I believe it, but I want a thing, sometimes, to brush against my own skin and remind me it happened; it’s still unfolding.
God listens. Last week I was having a moment in my room, door closed to the children outside it; the December-gray clouds outside matching the mood: at any moment it might snow, rain, or just stay gloomy, but absolutely no sunshine even hinted at poking through. My sighs were heavy and, really, rather wet. I opened up to a psalm; 61, I think, and a scratch, scratching at the door opened it wide enough for a dog in need of a diet and a haircut; he leaped onto my bed. He normally curls up beside me, that dog. I wonder if God roused that dog from his nap to sit on my lap as I sat cross-legged.
My hands smoothed fur. I felt my dry skin catch in his fine hair, and I knew then: this is how we know about Incarnation.
No, God is not a dog. Back up.
But God comes very near to us, especially when it’s December-gray and wet, and just sits. And He asks us to cooperate, I think. Because I could’ve reminded that dog about the No Dogs on the Bed (Anymore) rule, and I could’ve shooed him; he does need a bath, and I’m the worst dog bather. God only asks us to be still once in a while with a book, a toddler, a dog, a grandma, and feel them — and know we are not alone.
Dog-on-lap aside, I sometimes think it’d have been easier to feel the incarnation if I’d have felt actual baby-God skin. I’m more Thomas than I’d like to believe. I remember some touches that’ve lingered and I’ve crammed those sensory memories so full of meaning: a friend’s warm skin; the green, scratchy blanket on my childhood bed. Those, I touched and, especially when they weren’t there anymore, I knew what they meant to me. I want Jesus like that, sometimes.
I forget, because I’m a worm, about bread and Bread of Life. I know about all these things: Bethlehem leading to the Last Supper; Jesus’ broken body, and how we break bread now; Communion and communion, big C and little c. I know, but I want to feel it in my hands.
“Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean; but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love.”
Willa Cather, “Death Comes for the Archbishop“
I don’t suppose God sends a stomach flu for my sake. I hope when I prayed a Henri Nouwen-inspired prayer last night about my life: “Make it really, really clear,” He wasn’t answering that what I really needed was to read two books today while my girls slept off their upset stomachs. (But, maybe He does know me that well.) No, I only think that on a day I didn’t leave my living room, it’s especially easy to illustrate what a small little world I inhabit here.
… isn’t it kind of poignant that the first food we offer them, these kids with upset stomachs, is plain bread, a little toasted? Nothing sacred or sacramental happens. (The cheap toaster doesn’t even burn Mary’s face on the bread.) Just, this simple, elemental thing they need. As I hand them the warm bread, maybe it’s in these banal moments that incarnation’s closer than I imagined.
I’m still not sure I’ll ever know what Incarnation means. But I, Mom, get closer in these little moments to feeling it with my hands.