What’s the big deal about the nativity scene? Faced with 21st-century chaos, the image of a poor Palestinian family gathered around a feeding trough hardly seems newsworthy. The story of Christ’s birth is like a timeworn Christmas movie playing in the background of our lives, unwatched: we’ve seen it so many times that we can quote the lines from memory, but they don’t mean anything to us.
And yet, Christian tradition tells us this is one of the most important moments of the year. How do we overcome our apathy?
I have a strange solution. I tuck a plastic green dinosaur into my family’s manger scene. No, this isn’t some bizarre attempt at revisionist history. This fluorescent little T-Rex lurks among my porcelain donkeys and sheep to remind me that the Incarnation is shocking and weird. God become flesh is weird. Flesh rendered immortal is weird. The uncontainable creator of the universe, held in the arms of his human mother, is really as weird as it gets.
I can’t quite take credit for the dinosaur idea. It all started a few years ago, when a particularly imaginative priest-monk friend of mine sent me an email just before Christmas. We’d been corresponding for years, and in this email he re-framed the Incarnation for me in a way I’d never heard before:
An event that occurred roughly 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem of Judea: the birth of a human being. God Incarnate – as a human being. Not as a porpoise. Nor as an octopus. Not as a parrot. Not as a brontosaurus. As a human being of the male variety.
On a planet that has been around for 4.5 billion years and has about that long before the sun burns out. In a galaxy that has been in existence for 13.6 billion years and is 100,000 light years across.
No other species of life on this planet has lasted 4 billion years. It is plausible that homo sapiens may be biologically replaced.
What Christology, what theology, can embrace all that and make a given human life, yours or mine, meaningful?
It was in the Incarnation itself, my friend went on to say, that we found the answer. “Eternal God has a mom!” he said. “No other religion claims something so outrageous.” He wished we could include a dinosaur in the manger scene to emphasize the Incarnation’s renewal of life and hope for all creation. And so, from that Christmas on, I did.
Even as Christ came to earth, still sustaining the universe, even as a child, he was also transforming it.
To really understand how the Incarnation changed the entire created world, we have to understand what life was like before the coming of Christ. In his classic fourth-century theological work, On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius the Great paints a picture of the pre-Incarnational world: “Cities warred against cities, and nations rose up against nations; the whole world was torn apart by factions and battles…”
The whole world. If this sounds hauntingly familiar to us, it should. And yet, Saint Athanasius tells us that Christ came to earth not only to save humans, but to “recreate the universe.”
He says that even as Christ came to earth, still sustaining the universe, even as a child, he was also transforming it with the knowledge of himself:
“The Word of God took a body and used a human instrument, in order to give life to the body and in order that, just as he is known in creation by his works, so also he might act in a human being, and show himself everywhere, leaving nothing barren of his divinity and knowledge…the Savior did this [to fill] everything everywhere with his presence…
How did Christ, whose earthly life was limited to three decades in the Middle East, touch all parts of creation? If we look ahead to the feast of Easter, we can see Christ resurrected, the destroyer of death–but that’s not what Saint Athanasius is referencing here. By coming to earth, by being born to a human mother, by becoming incarnate himself, Christ joined the material world.
Christ took all the broken bits of civilizations and organisms past and took them up into himself, turned them into himself.
Let’s unpack that a bit. Christ’s body is made of matter, just like yours and mine–matter recycled from the beginning of the world, made up of plants and animals, distant stars, dinosaurs. The cycle of life (illustrated beautifully in this music video) is not new. We are born, we die, we decompose. We take the life of other creatures into our own bodies, we pass away and pass that matter on, as has been done by all creatures for billions of years. As my priest-monk friend said, what theology could take all that and make it meaningful?
And yet, with Christ, the cycle of life was restored. Christ took all the broken bits of civilizations and organisms past and took them up into himself, turned them into himself. Christ took the cycle of death and ended it, was resurrected and ascended into heaven. A man, fully human and fully God, eternal and yet made of matter, sits at the right hand of God. In so doing, Christ exemplified the role of human beings from the beginning: to take this beautiful, created world, and to offer it up to God in thanksgiving.
And it doesn’t end there. How could Christ come to earth and not fundamentally alter the way we see this earth? It’s easy to understand how Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be demarcated as holy sites, and rightly so; they contain the very paths Christ tread. And yet, by being incarnate, Christ was intimately connected with the entire created world, and still is. All air is air that was touched by Christ. All water is connected to the water with which Christ was baptized. (I once tried to think on this when a sudden rainstorm drenched me on the way home from the library. With every squishy step, I reminded myself that I was being drenched in the baptismal water of Christ. It worked…until I got cold.) Your very skin and bones, the very heart of you, is made up of molecules from a planet that has played host to God.
The Incarnation reached forward and backward in human history to touch us all, even the dinosaurs.
This gives new meaning to the Psalmist’s lament: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (139:7). Saint Athanasius is quick to caution us that even before his incarnation, Christ “was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place.” But still, Saint Athanasius says, “now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation.”
Now he comes, the king of all, to us. It is a shocking reality. And so, I look at my baby green dinosaur near the infant Christ in the manger and I remember that the Incarnation is a beacon of hope–not just for me, but for everybody, and everything. The Incarnation reached forward and backward in human history to touch us all, even the dinosaurs. Let us then revere this created world—and each other—as it truly is: the throne of the incarnate God.