Imperfection Incarnate

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (2 December 2015)

Psalm 119:1 ~ Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

The Old Testament can be so unforgiving! Who is “blameless”? What human being can attain such perfection? I wrote the following reflection on perfection for the December issue of our parish newsletter.

A few weeks ago, my wife Evie and I went to the movies! We saw Bridge of Spies (which I strongly recommend, by the way) and several promotional “trailers” for up-coming movies, one of which is playing in the local theater as I write this reflection.

The movie is a holiday comedy starring Diane Keaton and entitled Love the Coopers; I know nothing about this movie and hadn’t heard of it until seeing the trailer. As the promo begins, we see Keaton in a department store speaking to someone and saying, “It’s the only time of the year when we’re all together! I want the perfect Christmas!”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to Evie and said, “O my God! She’s my mother!”

I love my late mother and miss her dearly, but if she had one besetting sin it was holiday perfectionism. Whatever the holiday – New Year, Easter, Fourth of July, end-of-summer Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – these were times for the family to gather and the festivities had to be perfect! And . . . of course . . . they never were. The holiday wasn’t perfect, Mother was disappointed, and her disappointment made the imperfection worse. Especially at Christmas.

Thank God that perfection is not what Christmas is all about! If it were, there would be nothing at all to celebrated because, in all honesty, it would be a dismal failure for all of us. Quite to the contrary, Christmas is about imperfection, about weakness, about foolishness.

If the Incarnation was all about perfection, the Word of God would have arrived as Someone like the Greek god Apollo, riding in a flaming chariot, bedazzling humankind with Sun-like brilliance. If the Incarnation was all about strength, the Savior would have come as Someone like Hercules, wrestling serpents and conquering lions. If the Incarnation was all about human wisdom, the Lord might have appeared as Someone like the lady Athena, the Greek goddess who sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Instead, the Word of God arrived not in a shining chariot but in a dirty stable; the Savior came not as a strongman but was a weak newborn; the Lord appeared not uttering words of wisdom but unable even to communicate for himself. Foolishness indeed. Imperfection incarnate.

“Love came down at Christmas,” wrote Christina Rossetti and though it isn’t usually associated with Christmas, her verse makes me think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) Love does not insist on perfection or strength or wisdom; love accepts and works through those human frailties, not against them.

As the infant born in Bethlehem grew and became a man, his life was filled with what we might call imperfections. He soon became a refugee in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20)

Love came down at Christmas to be a refugee, rejected and homeless. Christmas is about love, not perfection:

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Forgive yourself and others whatever imperfections there may be. The Incarnation is about love, not blameless perfection!

May your Advent preparations and Christmas festivities, imperfect though they will be, be filled with love!