What About Henry?
A Christmas Gift

Big and Little Incarnations

ThroughTheNeedlesEye Next Christmas we’ll run away ‑‑‑at least, that’s what my wife and I sometimes half jokingly, half seriously say to each other each December.  December has to be the heaviest month of the year.  It has to endure the weight of religious tradition and commercial hysteria and socializing to the point that I sometimes wonder if it may burst from the demands placed upon it. 

I don’t know if  this month brings you the Christmas of Christians, Hannakuh, Ramadan, Kwannza, Winter Soltice, or just buying, selling, and a gnawing empty that says there must be more.  Like any writer, I can only write from where I am ‑‑‑Bethlehem’s baby.  For Christians, life is rooted in the centrality of the Incarnation.  So too is writing. 

The Incarnation affirms that human, earthy reality is worthy of study and love and retelling.  It’s a favoring of the concrete, particular, earthy stuff of life ‑‑‑the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Yet at the same time it reverberates with something Other ‑‑‑something that transcends those particulars and points to a greater truth.  Whatever we make of this Incarnation, writers know this from experience, from craft, from our own attempts to incarnate reality in words.  We know that the better story or poem is one that connects with people where they are ‑‑‑in the rattle and rub of everyday life.  At the same time, and often serendipitously, we know that a greater truth emerges from the details.  It rears up, sometimes befuddling, sometimes amusing, sometimes filling us with wonder and even more questions.  In the story or poem, the writer says “I am with you reader” while, at the same time, he reveals some truth that transcends both the writer’s and the reader’s particular circumstances.

Even artists who attempt to create art from randomness ‑‑‑such as musician John Cage ‑‑‑cannot escape the tug of the transcendant.  Even out of the randomness, pattern emerges, meaning surfaces, like some natural law.

Dorothy Sayers once wrote an essay where she explained that Christians see this world as a novel, which has a whole universe of action within its pages but no independent reality.  Its reality depends on God, who alone is real in his own right.  But people are made able to enter this true reality, which is called heaven, so that when they die, “It is not as though the characters and action of the book were continued in our next like a serial; it is though they came out of the book to partake of the real existence of their author.”  God with us, God apart from us; immanent, transcendant; earthy and out of this world.

I am pro‑creation because I believe, like many others before me, that our creating is an inevitable and wonderful aspect of our created nature.  We, the characters in this tale spun by God, are telling our own tales, living out our lives in ways that sometimes surprise, sadden, or amuse our Maker. You know how it feels, don’t you?  We’ve all carefully sketched out our characters’ lives, only to find that they possess a freedom that inevitably asserts itself.  We ourselves are little incarnations that continue to incarnate reality, in what we create. 

A Hebrew baby.  A dutiful, albeit surprised young father.  A young girl with an illegitimate child.  The smell of wet hay, manure, and unwashed bodies.  A surreal visitation.  Dumbstruck sheep‑tenders.  A cow, a donkey, a cat, and a dog look on.

All details: concrete, particular, the stuff of stories.  Yet something greater emerges. It’s the mystery of every incarnation ‑‑‑every story, every poem, every God become man.

But the Incarnation is more than an affimation of the worthiness of what is created and what we create.  It also confirms that the most powerful and meaningful things ‑‑‑ including good writing ‑‑‑ are those which so often appear powerless, subtle, indirect, and deceptively modest.  Frankly, I am tired of hearing art validated as “bold” or “shocking.”  And I’m frustrated by the prostituting of art by its politicization.  The Writer of the Gospel tale told it simply, with understatement, and with an indirection and subtlety that has frustrated many a theologian.  When you end the story, you can’t quite put your finger on God.  Seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  Rather, the Author says “I love these characters, so much that I will become one of them so that I can liberate them from the reality of my making.  At the same time, I leave them free to unmake themselves, to ignore me and to ultimately write themselves out of existence, because they have no existence apart from me.”  The Incarnation says that the most powerful things come in apparent weakness ‑‑‑Word become flesh.  It says that good writing is that which is sutle and indirect, yet so full of meaning that its full expression is often beyond its author.

Finally, the Incarnation tells us that our creations, our writing, our truthtelling, is set in the context of love.  This goes against the flow of art culture because, for many artists today, free expression is sometimes viewed as the sine qua non of human existence.  Any kind of self‑censure is demeaned as cowardice ‑‑‑a failure to speak the truth, to say what must be said.  It’s almost as if what can be written must be written.  Yet as important as self‑expression is ‑‑‑as telling the truth is ‑‑‑we don’t believe that it is the highest value.  That place belongs to love.

The Incarnation wasn’t about some political or moral agenda, much as some would have made it that way then or utilize it for their own political program now.  No, the Author of Life wrote Love into the Universe in the most unexpected and personal way ‑‑‑a tiny baby, born of wide‑eyed poor folk with barely a roof over their heads in a tiny, insignificant country half‑way around the world.  And yet, it’s a story that continues to speak because its both chock‑full of the particular ‑‑‑baby, unwed mother, common folk, angels, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other unsavory folk ‑‑‑and yet, at bottom, it’s about something we all want to understand ‑‑‑Love.  It’s a tale told in Love and for Love.

So writing is more than expression, more than just telling the truth, more than message or agenda.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.  Not enough that should be said, is said, for Love. Love both provides a boundary in our writing and the challenge, the challenge to say what should be said; the restraint not to say what would wound or hurt.

Frederick Buechner, who has written painfully personal memoirs of his life, has explained that he never wrote about his mother until after she died.  Why?  Because he was concerned that she would read it and that it would damage his relationship with her.  Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.

You may regard the Incarnation as, at best, myth, and at worst, as a lot of rubbish.  So be it.  I’m not here to convince you otherwise, even if I could.  I haven’t even said all that could be said about the connection between the Word enfleshed and our words enfleshed.

But do this, will you? ‑‑‑Next time you do anything creative --- from writing a story to planning and cooking a meal --- watch order and meaning assert themselves, note the power in the sutlety of a little poem or story or beautiful meal, marvel when love enters the equation of creation.  Then ask yourself: Why?


[Originally published February 6, 2006]