[Editor’s note: Throughout Advent, we’re sharing one meditation at the beginning of each week, each taken from a delightful little collection called The Grand Miracle: Daily Reflections for the Season of Advent, published by the Christian History Institute. If you find yourself enjoying what you’re reading, be sure to check it out—there will be a link at the bottom of each post where you can learn more. This last meditation is from Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, about…]
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (which means“God with us”).—Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV)
They all were looking for a king—George MacDonald, hymn, “That Holy Thing”
to slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
The bone-chilling sea-damp is what I remember most from our first Christmas Eve service in Scotland. That, and the singing.
Romantic on paper: a fishing village, an ancient stone church, the bells . . . but reality included huddling together for warmth. As we shivered the congregation rose for a hymn new only to us: “That Holy Thing.”
“That Holy Thing” is not a typical Christmas carol; MacDonald reminds us that holy is not comfortable, let alone predictable. We want holiness to sweep away all ills and be cozy and Christmasy too. But holy does not avoid pain or difficulty, even while making way for good. It facilitates vulnerability; it usurps assumptions; it invites—sometimes even causes—tears.
Here is real flesh-and-blood, breaking forth via real sweat-and-tears, into this real dust-and-mud world of his own Triune making.Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
The Child comes and instead sweeps away our ideas of triumph. A “little baby thing,” the long-awaited Messiah is born into a low-income, scandal-threatened, displaced family. This seed of royal lineage is destined to become a border-crossing refugee before he is old enough for school. Instead of conquering the opposition and asserting the rights of his people, he arrives as a helpless infant that makes a woman cry.
Here is real flesh-and-blood, breaking forth via real sweat-and-tears, into this real dust-and-mud world of his own Triune making. Woven into the pain of his unglamorous arrival is the promise of goodness beyond conception, but not in the way that even those who expect challenges expect. Christ asks not for political strength or financial security or even familial ease. Rather he asks that we welcome weakness, embrace the uncomfortable, step into that which may hurt—and promises that throughout he will be with us.
The invitation is into an unpredictable holiness that is sometimes joyful and sometimes hard. But Emmanuel’s chosen identity pledges also, always, this: that even when huddled against cold or tears, we are never, ever, alone.
Emmanuel, make us ever more aware of your abiding loving presence; may that give us courage this Christmas to be humble servants of your love in spaces we might otherwise avoid. Amen.
When Kirstin is not lecturing internationally about MacDonald, the Inklings, Faith & Art, or environmental care, she is based on an old farm in Canada’s Ottawa Valley where she stewards the property, mentors teens and young adults, and occasionally partners with the environmental network A Rocha. Director of Linlathen, a conference and lecture project that explores the interrelation of theology, ecology, and the arts, she is also on various Inklings boards and is co-chairperson of the George MacDonald Society. She loves exploring how stories can transform us – and loves enticing people outside so that they can participate in God’s creation doing the same.