Do not speak to me of the beauty of crèche scenes. They are too still. They are too peaceful. And they are all too often tainted by order: by a most pernicious (if also appealing) symmetry. The neat beauty of crèche scenes, however precious, can only tell half of the truth. Do you think the coming of Christ into the world was orderly? Do you think it was peaceful?
I doubt it.
If God meant to make a peaceful, orderly entrance into our world, I doubt She would have chosen to manifest Herself through the brutal, vulnerable mess of birth in a stable. As if that holiest of nights was actually a silent one, like the old hymn suggests! Nonsense. That night was far from silent. But mark me: when I speak of the noise of Noël, I do not speak of the glorious euphony of an angelic choir serenading shepherds, nor do I speak of the adorable pa-rum-pum-pum-pum of a little boy drumming. No. When I speak of the noise of Noël, I speak of the violent cacophony of human birth. I speak of God embodying Herself on earth amid a deluge of sounds: the braying of mules; the baa-ing of sheep; the baying of sheepdogs; the moans of a new mother who spills out God and amniotic fluid onto the dirt floor of a Bethlehem stable.
Before she wrapped Him in bands of cloth and laid Him in a manger, the blessed Theotokos mingled her blood with barn-straw and cried out in pain as Christ emerged from her body: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen the Word’s glory—the glory as of a mother’s first-born emerging in messiness!
Much has been made over the centuries of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ; but as for me, I want a devotion to the Placenta of Mary: that holy, ugly mass which dwelt with Christ in the womb and nurtured Him and spilled out with Him. Blessed be that Organ, life-giving and ephemeral! Blessed be the bloody mess of Incarnation! The Eternal Word of the Living God: but now dirty and swaddled and small, yet Sacred all the same—if not more so!
And what can the mess of the Enfleshment teach us?
Remember: “theology” comes from the Greek theós (“God”) and lógos (“word”). We often expect our theology—our God-words—to be orderly, to be clean, to be complete. We often expect our theology to cast a neatness over reality; to order everything; to make everything make sense; to put all of reality in its right place. Some theologians go so far as to call their God-words systematic. Thomas Aquinas even called his magnum opus the Summa—the “Sum Total”—of Theology. Have you ever explored the Summa? It is enormous. It is meticulously ordered. It is endlessly detailed. It is about as comprehensive as a philosophical system can be. And yet it is said that, at the end of his life, in a moment of deep prayer, Thomas beheld the glory of God in all its fullness. And it is said that, in response to that revelation, he completely abandoned his work on the Summa. Asked to continue writing, he declined, saying: “everything that I have ever written is like straw to me.” And so, paradoxically, the “Sum Total of Theology” remains unfinished to this day.
Poor Thomas. I imagine he would have liked to find all the right God-words, if he could. I imagine he would have liked to organize them perfectly and comprehensively. I imagine he was disappointed to discover that his life’s work was straw. Yet straw is not such a bad thing to be, if only we are honest about its weakness and its limits. What does it matter if our God-words are straw? Jesus Christ is the Lógos Theoû. Jesus Christ is the original God-word. It is Jesus Christ who gives any Truth to Scripture. It is Jesus Christ who gives Truth to any word we speak of God. And Jesus Christ first dwelt among us as a swaddled, dirty babe nestled in a bed of straw. Theology is weak. It is inadequate. It is a poor attempt at masking the glorious, complex mess of reality. Yet these facts do not stop theology from being a manger for the Lord.
You dwell in our words, Christ. You dwell in our minds and in our hearts and in our bodies. But you do not dwell in these places because they are clean or ordered. You do not inhabit our reality because our reality makes sense. It doesn’t. Reality is absurd. Words are not enough. Minds are cluttered. Hearts are impure. Bodies are messy and raw. All of it is straw, and yet Mary spilled You out of herself and nestled You within that straw. Therein is the glory of Christmas, Lord Jesus: You rested there, despite the sounds of animals and the stench of manure: not because any of it was clean or orderly or worthy, but simply because You loved all of it, regardless.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a senior in Eliot House concentrating in the Comparative Study of Religion.