(Yup. What follows is a Christian, Christmas sermon. You've been warned.)
A couple of weeks ago I was on a flight from Palm Springs, returning home from the December residency of the MFA low-res program in which I teach (UCR-Palm Desert: The Hottest MFA in the Country—no, it’s true; our posters say so). I’m not a brilliant flier. Airplanes make little sense to me and thus, they terrify. Sometimes I take a valium. Sometimes I white-knuckle my way through the turbulence and the beverage service. And sometimes, as in this instance, I strike up a conversation with the poor sap sitting next to me.
My seat mate was young and very handsome. He worked as a supervisor on an herb farm in the Coachella Valley. He was traveling to Miami with his boss. His hometown was Jerusalem. His name was Mohammed.
We had a nice chat, us. I inquired after the herbs he farmed. What’s the best one? I asked. The chive, he replied. It's the hardest to grow. I asked about his family. Ten years ago a brain tumor killed his father. My own father's been dead a little over a decade, and I said as much. We offered each other the condolences of paternal loss.
I like talking about religion. Not because I wish to proselytize—that is neither my talent nor my business to accomplish—but because you can learn so much of what’s necessary to know about another person simply by asking him what he believes. Or, what he doesn't. And so I asked Mohammed to speak to me of his faith. How he practiced it. What it meant to him. How it guided and directed his life.
As the conversation deepened, and because Mohammed had such a gentle and unassuming mien, I felt bold enough to ask him a question that was probably ruder and more personal that I needed to be asking a stranger on an airplane. I asked him point blank to tell me why he was a Muslim. Like, why exactly. What makes his prophet so special? Why the Koran? Was I an infidel? Would Allah not save me from the fires of a Muslim hell? I wanted to know these things. Mohammed was open to this exchange and his answer came easily, beautifully, and without hesitation. It was strange in its simplicity: Because Mohammed is God’s truest prophet and the Koran is a perfect book. I nodded in a fair-enough way, even though that isn't what I believe.
And then, Mohammed asked me. Jill, why are you a Christian?
My faith is important to me. I carry it around wherever I go. I cannot divorce myself from it. By turns, it's heavy, then light. I wrestle with it and I treasure it at once. And I love it. And I hate it. And I'm indifferent to it. Sometimes I consider it carefully. Sometimes I walk into it blindly with the belief of… well, a believer. For better or worse, my faith is central to who I am. Jill Alexander Essbaum is a Christian. And that's that.
But despite its importance, I've never been able to effectively serve as its witness. I’ve no skill for the evangelical. I deliver even the gladdest of tidings with difficulty. And, to be completely honest, as Christians go, I’m not really a very good one. I've been known to (as Martin Luther puts it) sin boldly. In fact, I've done it this week. In double fact-- I'll do it again. To be perfectly blunt: I ain’t no poster child for Jesus.
But that day and thirty thousand feet in the air, I had an answer to the question Mohammed posed. Where the answer came from, I cannot say. To its theological correctness, I cannot speak. But it was my answer. It is my answer.
What would it say about the creator, the architect, the ruler of the universe if, through his own volition and desire, he chose to dress himself in the cloak of human flesh and live a mortal life? An earthly life. A life in which bodily pain is felt. A life of difficulty, persecution, friends who betray him. A life that ends inevitably on an instrument of Roman torture. Who would sign up for that?
A mortal life, an earthly life. But a life not fashioned entirely of suffering. A life that includes in its experience joy. And food. And wine. And a mother who loves him. And followers who hinge on the doorframe of his teachings. And women who wash his feet with their hair. A life not devoid of pleasures. A life suchlike our own lives. Lives we often happily engage in. Lives we just as often curse.
What it says to me-- and I told this to Mohammed through tears I hadn’t expected but didn’t deny-- is that God is very, very, very invested in what it means to be a person in this present world. For, if you assume that Jesus was both fully corporeal and fully divine (NB: this this my assumption; I do not presume it to be yours), if you believe that he was meant to live a season and then to die, then you must conclude that he knows, he absolutely knows, how easily broken our human spirits are, how unsafe we can feel, how angry, lustful, selfish, greedy and rotten we can become. We must accept that he learned these things. Or even better, that he knew them to begin with. And still, he came to earth to live like we do. A life with a start and a finish. A birth and a death.
What it says to me is that this is a god of compassion and grace and tremendous understanding. A god who enfleshes himself is a god of generous, munificent, heavenly empathy.
The facts—we cannot really know them. Even so, Christians around the world have agreed upon the story's gist: Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem for the census. There's no place to stay except the innkeeper’s stable. That night, she goes into labor and gives birth to a son. She lays him in a cradle lined with straw. Animals watch. There's a celestial event that leads astronomers to this young family. They bring him, not the gifts you’d give an infant, but the treasures one presents a king. Shepherds come. Angels sing. The night is silent. The night is holy. Emmanuel. God is with us.
Tonight I went to the candlelight service at church. I didn’t sing like an angel. I sang out of tune. I didn’t bring a gift; when the plate was passed, I let it pass me by. Distracted as I was by at least a dozen inane preoccupations, I didn’t watch even half as attentively as the animals did. I giggled when my candle wouldn't light. I rolled my eyes at the organist's too flourishy flourishes.
But when, in the first verse of “Joy to the World,” we sang the line Let earth receive her king, I discovered that not only was I entirely ready to receive him, but that I needed him. And wanted him. My god. Both holy and human. A god born into the body of a helpless, tiny, soft-skinned baby. A god so willing to lower himself that he's born in the same room where animals shit.
That's a humble, gracious, merciful god. That’s the kind of king I’m ready to receive. And that’s the god I justified to Mohammed.
Merry Christmas, friends and poets. May God bless you. May you simply be blessed.