By the time you're reading this, the Hildans will have scattered to different parts of the country for Christmas break. And though we may be absent, life here in New Haven will, of course, go on without us. My work site, the Community Soup Kitchen, will continue to serve lunch to somewhere between 200 and 300 people four days a week. While I'm unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, volunteers and staff at CSK will be working to ensure that people in need will still be fed on the holiday. Likewise, my housemates' work sites will keep on serving others while we're gone, and Christ Church will continue its Advent and Christmas celebrations without us.
As I think about leaving for break, I can't help but think forward to when this leaving will be permanent. Some of us might stay here another year, but others will be moving on to the next stage of their lives. New people will move into the house. Just as our work sites will function without us over break, they will function after our tenure here ends. The needs of people in New Haven that were here when we arrived will, unfortunately, still exist, despite the good we may have been able to accomplish through our work. By the nature of a service year program, this giving of ourselves (to this particular service, to New Haven, to each other) is something temporary.
If we only give cursory thought to the Christmas story, Jesus' time on earth can likewise seem temporary. The Son of God was made man, came to earth for a few decades, then left. It sometimes feels like the world just continued on without him, basically unchanged (excepting the church's often problematic influence on history). Most of us probably wouldn't admit to having such a bleak view of the incarnation… but nevertheless, this can sometimes be what it feels like when we look back at the Christmas story.
This time of year, we tell, and celebrate, the story of a birth in Bethlehem. The story of a baby, of a virgin, a star, shepherds, and wise men. And rightfully so. The represented moments, bound to a particular time, are not insignificant because they are so bound. After all, these time-bound moments tell us things we need to know. Our understanding of God is enriched (indeed, made possible!) by the accounts we have of Jesus' ministry during his very particular time on earth! However, as Fr. Joseph Britton, Christ Church's interim rector, pointed out in a sermon at a recent evening mass, Christ is expansive; the Gospel passages themselves hint that there is more to Jesus' story on earth than they themselves can contain.
Our reflection on the incarnation is missing something if we only view it as a temporary phenomena.
Our God came into the particulars of time as a particular man who walked and ate and breathed the air of a particular place. But our God also transcends time and place. Our God abides with us. Our God sends the Spirit to dwell with us. “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:20 NRSV), Jesus says to the disciples. “...I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20 NRSV).
The incarnation still matters to our understanding of this God who abides with us. After all, the humanity that Jesus took on did not disappear in his resurrected form. He may have been different, for sure, but the wound in his side, such a human thing, was still there for Thomas to touch (and is still there now, or so I believe).
As I think about my time in New Haven, I might dream that I will make some sort of long-lasting difference in my placement. I am more optimistic about the prospect this time will make some sort of long-lasting difference in me. Even still, I must accept that this experience, like most experiences, is fleeting—leaving its impression and then ultimately leaving, moving aside for whatever comes next. I can be comforted by the knowledge that this is not how God, or the incarnation, works.
As I observe Christmas this year, I will try not to think of the incarnation as a story of God acting in the past, but also as a present reality. God has not moved on from the incarnation. God is not over it. It is a truth about the ascended Christ who still understands and dwells with humanity so intimately, a truth about Christ who dwells with me in New Haven and at home in Pennsylvania. It is a truth about Christ who will dwell with me wherever I go next, and who will continue to dwell in all the places and the people that I've left and will leave behind. It is a truth about Christ who will still be working in those places and people when the work is no longer ours to do. I am thankful that God is on the job—and that, for this piece of time, God is letting me participate in some of that work in New Haven.