incarnation is for the carnate
I’ve performed in many, many Christmas plays in my time, but my most brilliant role came at the tender age of ten when I played the Angel Gabriel – the Archangel Gabriel. The choice came down to either me or Jimmy Sizemore. However, due to my superior talent and the fact that my Aunt Rachel made the costume, I got the part and Jimmy played a shepherd. Yes, Gabriel was my most brilliant role.
I mean this quite literally; Gabriel lit up the stage. My costume, a pleated starched white sheet, was trimmed with reflective silver. My halo was silver tinsel, and my wings were wrapped in silver foil. When the spotlight hit me (and it hit me in all my scenes) I practically “shone round about.” I was brilliant…and liked it.
Enough of itchy sheep costumes. Enough of faintly-cologned bathrobes belonging to someone else’s father. Enough of lumbering about the earth on dull, hairy legs. All other roles were so pedestrian, so horizontal. But Gabriel had wings! So vertical! So non-mortal! Gabriel was anything but biological. Can you even picture an angel burping or scratching? All those human roles were dull and ordinary, but Gabriel was pure light.
And that’s not all. I had soaring lines, like “Behold!” (I liked saying behold.) “Behold! I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Mrs. Jordan, the organist, would bring up a nice crescendo when I said, “great joy!” I imagined the audience gazing in wonder when that spotlight hit me. I would suddenly appear (standing on a stepladder, which no one could see thanks to the black cloth draped over it) and everybody would assume I was flying. Would they be able to restrain a certain flutter of astonishment, a throat-catch of awe? I think not.
But there was more. I knew enough Bible to know that people were often afraid of angels. Mrs. Tissell, the director, even instructed the shepherds, “When the light shines on Gabriel, boys, shield your face and quake.” I pictured Jimmy Sizemore “sore afraid” and quaking.
Boy, this was going to be good.
On the night of the play, I arrived early. Backstage was a flurry of moms and kids, costumes, and safety pins. Mrs. Tissell made me sit off to the side to protect my wings from getting bent-up in all the bustle. Jimmy and the other shepherds kept slapping at them as they walked by. I decided I’d “shine a little extra glory round them” later. But mostly, I sat there thinking about my big final scene.
There was loud murmuring in the sanctuary as the adults arranged themselves in the pews. The lights went down and Mrs. Tissell began narrating. The play unfolded. On cue, I visited Mary, and then, accompanied by an entourage of singing angels assembled in a “host-like” fashion, I delivered the announcement to the shepherds. However, in my opinion, they didn’t quake very convincingly. I shone well, but was saving my most intense luminosity for the final scene when the whole cast assembled half-circle around the manger.
I was to appear last, capping off the scene atop the aforementioned stepladder, positioned center-stage directly behind Mary and Joseph. The light would hit me, the music would swell, I’d raise my arms and the whole cast and audience would sing the first verse of Silent Night. Then all the lights would dim except for the spotlight on me and the Holy family – for dramatic effect. Then a slow fade, leaving the audience with the impression of heaven blessing earth. And, of course, a seared-in mental image of me as the hovering, shimmering, quake-inducing being. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
But as the big moment approached, I started perspiring. My wings were heavy and slouching. I itched. I started thinking about climbing that ladder in my floor-length white gown. I hadn’t practiced it. Would I step on the hem and strip myself, revealing my plain t-shirt and jeans? Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling glorious verticality; I was feeling gravity.
The ladder wobbled because one leg was on an extension cord. For fear of falling, I stopped one rung short of the top. The spotlight hit me square in the face and instead of “shining brilliantly” I squinted awkwardly. I couldn’t see the audience response. I listened; was that astonished gasps or snickering? Forced to lower my eyes, I could only see the cast below me. I remembered to raise my arms but being off-balance I only got them up half-way. The music rose and we began to sing.
I thought I’d feel like the center of things. But I didn’t. I felt decidedly off-center, distant from the personified sheep and cow, the magi, Mary, and Joseph. Even Jimmy and the shepherds felt far away. The light—that I had so coveted – was shining on them. In fact, the whole moment was shining on them. Then it hit me. Christmas isn’t for angels, it’s for them: those smelly, scratching, pedestrian, mouth-breathing humans. That is the whole point of Christmas. God chooses—I do not know why—to come to humans. God chooses—I do not know how—to become human. It’s incomprehensible, but God made humans the form into which He poured His image. And then, at Christmas, human is the form into which He poured His very Son. It is as if God designed the small, vulnerable human soul to be just the right home for the immense quaking favor of God.
I looked again at the scene below me. There lied the baby Jesus, swaddled in the same breath-drawing, nervous-systematized flesh as everyone in the little church. God, in the flesh, demonstrating His love – for them. I was Gabriel, mighty Gabriel, but I found myself on the outside, longing to look in at this thing that wasn’t for me.
The Incarnation, it turns out, is for the carnate.
I suddenly had the urge to get down off my high ladder. I didn’t so much want to shine, but to be shone upon. I didn’t want to be the one saying, “Behold!” I wanted to be the one beholding. I didn’t want to bear glad tidings; I wanted to hear them. Shaking up on that high ladder, I felt homesick for my humanity.
It has been many years since I climbed off that wobbly ladder. But since then, I’ve climbed back up many others. It seems I’m always looking for something to prop up the illusion of hovering, of shimmering, of not being afraid. I’m always dressing up in some kind of costume, hoping to cover my need. But every ladder wobbles. Every costume, no matter how pressed and bright, is just so many fig leaves. Eventually, I trip on the hem and expose who I really am: an earth-toned, hairy-legged pedestrian.
But the stumble reveals something else, too. Yes, I am broken and idolatrously addicted to ladders. But it is because I crave light. The way I try to attain it is depravity, but the hunger for it is dignity. Though broken, I am yet a being who has this curious longing to be filled with light and covered with love.
Odd. I started off thinking the way to attain light and love was to escape the human condition. And now, I see that is all wrong. The way to find love is to embrace being human both the brokenness and the beauty. Human is the role/place to be. Because human is exactly where God places his love. That’s the whole point of the Incarnation – how had I missed that?
So, if I want to be filled with light and love – and oh, how I do—I must climb off my high ladder, take off my costume and be found a human. Itches included.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.