In Army Airborne School in 1976, the instructors would say as you walked out to the plane for your first jump, “The jump isn’t that bad; it’s just that last 2 inches you got to watch out for.” I didn’t find that very comforting. In February 1546, Luther wrote one last letter to his wife. She knew he was ill, so he comforted her with these words: “Spare me your worrying; there is Someone better to worry about me than you and all the angels; He lies in the manger and hangs from the Virgin’s teats.” (N.B. To New Pastors: I believe “teats” is one of the seven words you are not supposed to use from the pulpit…at least in metropolitan areas.)
Why did Luther think this would comfort his wife? Why didn’t he assure her of the Lord’s mighty hand to heal? Why didn’t he point her to the will of God, like we do? Why did he send her to the manger and to the Christ Child nursing at the breasts of His mother? What possible comfort is there?
There is no comfort if you’re talking about an earthly child. Say one is born to be king. You could try to comfort by saying, “Hold on; in a matter of years this one will grow to become king of all. Our best interest will be looked out for by him.” But you wouldn’t highlight the fact that the one who would be king is still a helpless child in a crib, still dependant on his mother. Why then were Luther’s words to his wife comforting? I suppose someone might maintain that we don’t know that they were. Okay, then why am I comforted by them? Because they rub my face in the naked truth of the Incarnation.
During Advent and Christmas, I talk about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, but those words are either so familiar or conversely so foreign that there is not much comfort in them. I will talk of God leaving His mansions to dwell with us on earth, but that makes the Incarnation sound like a relocation. I will even borrow the words of one of the fathers and talk about God descending into our dust to exalt it to heaven, but that makes God sound like some kind of cosmic vacuum cleaner. Luther just says it how it is, and that’s comforting. He speaks in the same vein as St. Augustine before him who said, “For the Word was made flesh, that by Thy wisdom, by which Thou createst all things, He might suckle our infancy” (Confessions, vii, 18).
Luther presents to us a God with skin. And we need a God with skin just like the 4 year old whose mom was trying to teach her not to be afraid of the dark did. The mom assured her that God was watching over her in the night. With that the mom turned out the light and went to her room. A short time later mom felt a tap on her shoulder. “Mommy,” her 4 year old said, “I know God’s in there with me, but I need somebody with skin.”
Ain’t that the truth? Don’t we need a God with skin? A God who slept in cribs, messed in diapers, and nursed on teats just like we did. A God who knows firsthand what it means to be in the so called “human condition.” A God who knows our hopes, our fears, our temptations, our breaking points. Yes, “He Himself knows what is in man” (John 2) for He Himself is man.
We aren’t stuck with the gods Homer lamented about, “This is the lot the gods have spun for miserable men, that they should live in pain, yet themselves are sorrowless” (Iliad, xxiv). No, we have a God who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows not just on His back but in His body. We are not stuck with the notion of some hero appearing like Pallas from the brain of Zeus, mature and without a mother which is “the very opposite of a god being born like an ordinary baby and entirely dependent on a mother” (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 172). We have a God who assumed all that we are from womb that He might redeem all of what we are from the tomb. We do not have a Hercules who is half-man and half-God, a bridge@ that reaches to neither side is useless. We have a God who is Man.
As much as Katie would like to think she knew exactly what her husband was going through plagued by sickness, stalked by death, she didn’t. But the One in the manger and at the breast of the Virgin did. Her husband was in that twilight zone that no man or woman has ever come back from to talk about —except one. And this One said, “I am the Way. I am the Shepherd who can take you not just into the shadow of the valley of death but all the way through the real thing.”
Luther knew, what we have seen when people in crises look to the mighty God of “How Great Thou Art” or “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” There is just not much comfort there. What do I care how great God is when I am in great pain? What does it matter that God is immortal if I am feeling my mortality, invisible when I am faced with a visible illness, wise when I feel so foolish in my simple faith?
The only place God is comforting is in the face and in the exegesis of Him who is in the bosom of the Father from all eternity (John 1:18). God is utterly incomprehensible outside of the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin, but He is comprehensible in the flesh of Christ (Luther by Anderson, The Incarnation, 56-57). An incomprehensible God is no comfort. Wherever you find men ruled by merely by a Mystery, it is the ‘Mystery of Iniquity’ (Chesterton, Father Brown, 253.) We are ruled by a Man like us in every way, able to feel our infirmities, yet without our iniquities.
There is no comfort in the things of God unless we begin at the bodily end of them, unless we do our theology from below. We are to approach God on the Ladder He let down for us (John 1:51) in the Virgin’s womb, at her breast, in the manger lest we find ourselves poking our head into hell rather than heaven. Then we go to the gifts that the Virgin-born and raised left to us. Words that come from His mouth; Water that He washed in; Body that He gave and Blood that He shed. Here is comfort at our ears, on our bodies, in our mouths even as they are in the process of decaying back into the dust from whence they came.
The best that the earthly Christmas can do for comfort is to point to tearless little Lord Jesus: “no crying He makes.” Luther points to the little Lord Jesus hanging from the teats of His Mother. Here is a Jesus in flesh and blood for Me. Here is a Jesus with blood, sweat, and tears. Here is real incarnation; here is real comfort.