Christmas Eve(B): Flat Jesus
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis
This past July, Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis (where I serve) placed statuary of the Holy Family in an enclosure on our front lawn in order to draw attention to the crisis of Family Separation on our southern border. The aim for this icon was the same as all other icons: to cause us to pause and consider the materiality of the object of our prayer. To have an image, a display, draw us into the reality of a concept, and further into the eternal reality that lies among the object or person the icon depicts. All good iconography is good prayer. All good statuary, all good architecture, serves to draw us materially into the spiritual reality that permeates all of creation. While we as people are capable of high-level abstract thought, we’re not very good at it. We need something visible or tangible to ground us. A place to point to and say that, while God is not constrained, there are places and objects in which God is reflected. Pointed to.
By the time Fox News picked up the images and video of our display we were receiving quite a bit of correspondence. Much of it was nasty and polemic, which didn’t particularly phase me. What gave me pause, however, were a line of responses with a similar proposition—that the Holy Family was a materially privileged one. That they were not sojourners or wanderers in a strange city. That the stable was sufficient housing, the manger a well-made bed. And as such our work of identifying Jesus in the plight of the refugee and the migrant was ill-founded. Our icon did not reflect the Jesus that they knew. They Jesus they were convinced was pious object of yuletide devotion. The tidy and flat Jesus of countless roadside creches, white and flood-lit casting long shadows in front of equally white and empty crosses.
When St. Francis of Assisi made the first Crèche in the City of Greccio in 1223 he did it to put real and incarnate life to a static celebration. In what was perhaps the first of a millennium of attempts to “put Christ back in Christmas” the Saint called for a living display, he “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be (sic) brought unto the spot.” It was a living icon. An act of theatre. Contextualized, and situated in 13th century Italy, certainly, but it was a contextualization of those scant few lines that St. Luke gives us, that, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” On a cold December night an infant slept in hay. Oxen and Asses smelled as Oxen and Asses do. It was noisy, and odd—so much so that Saint Bonaventure made sure to note that Francis had papal permission to do it.
There is a part of me that wonders what we’ve lost in losing the newness, the life and the vitality of this icon. If we’re still able to see the radicality of the God’s incarnation that comes to us in the most unexpected way. If we’re able to see that God from God and Light from Light took on mortal flesh in the midst of a forced-government relocation. In a town so crowded that a trough was all that was open. At an unattended birth, with Shepherds as the first visitors.
Who are we to flatten the life in this? Who are we to tame a God that comes to us in ways that take us aback. Who are we to tame the mystery of the incarnation. To condense it. Sell it. Whiten it. And then claim that its ours? In a sentence no less profound than the opening line of St. John’s prologue, St. Luke tells us that Christ came to us a displaced Child born in a barn, and Angels shouted Glory!
We cannot afford to tame this. We cannot afford to own this. We cannot afford the great and terrible cost of re-making Christ’s nativity in our own image.
It is our job, then, to keep it wild. To break open the coming of God’s incarnation with awe and astonishment. To see behind every icon of the Holy Family a real and living Christ. A tender and exhausted Maria. A bewildered and beleaguered José.
Its up to us to let the icons and stories do what they are here to do.
Point us to God, and send us out in love to our neighbors.
 THE LIFE OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI. Saint Bonaventure, Translated by E. Gurney Salter (1904 by E.P. Dutton, New York, US.) Accessed at: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/bonaventure/assisi/francis.shtml#__RefHeading___Toc351061216
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman