I was in a seminary chapel when the great divorce between my mouth and the rest of my body hit me.
The choir of angels can’t be credited with the first Christmas hymn. Nor was it a lullaby the virgin cooed to her swaddled infant. You have to go much father back.
This past fall, Willie Nelson’s hair braids were sold at auction for $37,000. A tissue into which Scarlett Johansson blew her nose on the Tonight Show fetched $5,300 on eBay. And X-rays of Marilyn Monroe’s chest—just the X-rays, mind you—once brought in a whopping $45,000. If you’re lucky enough to be the proud owner of any item once worn or used by a celebrity—and the more intimate the better—then you’re sitting on a mountain of cash. People crave this stuff; and they’re certainly willing to open wide their wallets to add it to their collection. I don’t know about you, but I like to think that I’m above all that celebrity worship nonsense. But I like to deceive myself about a whole host of other things, too. My home is right outside San Antonio, TX, not far from the stomping grounds of George Strait. I guarantee you that if I ran into George and he invited me over for a BBQ at his place, then I’d be a name-dropping, Facebook-boasting, Twitter-bragging fool for the next three months. Everybody I know—and probably total strangers—would get to hear all about how George and I drank a cold Shiner Bock together late one evening on his back porch in the Texas Hill Country.
What is that magnetism that pulls us toward celebrities? Why do people stand in mile-long lines, worm their way into throngs of people, or pay big money simply for the chance to rub shoulders with the famous? No doubt the motivations vary from individual to individual, but I would suggest that at the core of these motivations is the desire for intimacy with one we deem greater than ourselves. Such closeness, such confidentiality, one might even say such communion with a person exalted by fame or fortune makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s like we share a little in what they have. While we’re with them, we’re more “them” than “us.” Our identity, however briefly, migrates into the sphere of their identity. I am no longer just Chad; I am a guest, one might even say, a friend at George Strait’s table.
The Good Picture Behind the Warped Image
Many of the basic human desires that God formed within us have, like bent arrows, gone in directions the Creator never intended them to go. Hunger becomes gluttony, thirst becomes drunkenness, love becomes lust, worship becomes idolatry. Nevertheless, if we look behind the warped image that man has revised we find the good that God has devised. And that good is indicative of the gifts God gives, the people He has made us to be, and the image in us He wants to restore.
In the case of celebrity worship, behind the almost idolatrous fascination that some fans have with a person of fame, we discover a desire that, in and of itself, is not sinful. It is the desire to connect with one who is greater than we are. We feel small but they make us feel big; we feel unimportant, but our connection with them makes us feel like we matter, we have purpose. To be singled out by them, to take a seat at their table, invests our lives with a sense of worth and transcendence.
That hunger to connect with one who is greater than we are will be satisfied only in the one who created that hunger within us in the first place. We may look for it in people of power or fame or fortune, but they will all fail us because, in truth, they are pilgrims traveling the same road we are. The stars of Hollywood and Nashville are searching for the same goal. Like we are, they too are restless until they rest in the one who finally and perfectly completes them.
The reason we so easily miss the God who is greater than we are is because that great God comes in such an unexpectedly tiny, humdrum package. We are staring up at the stars while the star is pointing down to the no-account town of Bethlehem, to a baby that looks like every other baby. We are looking up for a big and awesome God while the little and humble God is looking up as well—only He looking up at us from down below, wanting us to turn our eyes downward. None of us are really near-sighted or far-sighted, we are all up-sighted. Our eyes scan the heavens for the great one while we’re blind to the great one humbly hiding within arms reach.
But I’m not just talking about Christmas and how easy it is to miss God since He comes into our world as a baby. He remains in our world, He remains active in our lives, as a down-below-divinity. You won’t find Him in heaven’s version of Hollywood glitz and glamour. You won’t find Him riding in limos and hounded by paparazzi. If you’re searching for a God with razzle-dazzle, who’ll knock your socks off with His cool awesomeness, then you’re in for a lifetime of deceptive disappointments. In this world, God is hidden in His opposite. He is cloaked in the simple, the down-to-earth, the seemingly boring and unawesome stuff of this world.
The Old Rugged Table
One place we find not only God, but intimacy with this one greater than ourselves, is at a table. The thing is, the table is kind of like that manger in Bethlehem or the old rugged cross. To the eye, there’s nothing attractive or awe-inspiring about it. In fact, on the surface it’s downright disappointing. A little bread, a sip of wine. Why, even when you invite your friends over, you might have bread on the table and wine in glasses, but along with them you serve ribeyes and baked potatoes and steamed vegetables with pecan pie for dessert. Not God. The great and powerful king of all creation puts bread and wine on His table. That’s all you get.
No, that seems like it’s all you get, but it’s not. Like in that rough and simple manger lay God hidden as a common newborn; like on that bloody and gruesome cross hung God hidden as a common criminal; so in this inconspicuous and everyday meal is God hidden in common food. In that bread He has placed His Son, Jesus, so that when you eat that bread you take the body of Jesus into you. When you sip the wine, you take His blood into you. The Lord almighty is swaddled in bread and wine, the old rugged cross becomes a table. And here, while eating and drinking, you receive intimacy with God above and beyond anything imaginable. He and you merge as one. You take Him into you even as He takes you into Himself.
The Meal That Tells Me Who I Am
This is a closeness, a confidentiality, a communion that does infinitely more than a friendship with George Strait could do for me. It does more than make me feel better about myself. This meal of God, with God, consuming God, establishes my identity. Much as the act of marriage means that a man and woman are now one flesh, so this meal means that I am now one flesh with God. I am bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh. My identity as Chad has been subsumed into His identity so that I can no longer understand myself except in connection with Him. I am a son of our Father. I am the brother of Jesus. I am part of the bride of Christ. And all these are not mere figures of speech but statements of reality. This is who I am, this is who you are, in God through Jesus Christ.
There’s no need to stand in mile-long lines, worm your way into throngs of people, or pay big money to achieve intimacy with one greater than you. Simply take and eat the body of Christ; take and drink the blood of Jesus. Here is the costliest treasure on earth given to you free of charge. It cost Jesus His life, but that life He gives to you gratis. And with that life, comes all that God is and all that you need.
Looking down at Jesus’ humble table, at His humdrum food, I see that as His guest I will be more than an admirer, closer than a friend. Since I will consume Him, it will be no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And that life in and of Christ gives me infinitely more than worth and transcendence; it gives me peace and wholeness and joy of such enduring quality that it spills over from this life into the life to come.
You may not be able to get blood out of a turnip or make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but if you’re God, well, no sweat. His daily occupation is making something out of nothing. From dead dirt He molds a living man. And from a piece of bone He builds a lovely bride. Ninety-year-old Sarah giggles when out of her desert womb sprouts a flowering Isaac. Aaron’s staff buds, out of fleece Gideon squeezes a bowlful of dew, and a boulder becomes a drinking fountain at which all Israel may slake their thirst. This is no divine magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat; this is simply God, all in a day’s work, always pulling everything out of nothing by means of His almighty Word. “When all was still, and it was midnight, that almighty Word descended from the royal throne” to fill a tabernacle of virgin flesh with all the glory of the Godhead (Wisdom 18:14-15). He pulled everything human—body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members—all this He pulled into God. “Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God,” (Athanasian Creed). Therefore, God sucked His thumb and God dirtied His diaper; God learned His ABC’s and survived puberty; God ate and drank, sneezed and cried, walked and talked, lived and died.
And it all started when out of the nothingness of Mary’s womb, the Word who makes all things, made for Himself a body, human through and through. From the virgin soil of Eden the first man came and from the virgin womb the last man came—came to re-genesis you. If you want something done right, do it yourself; so the Word who created men came Himself to make all men new as the Word-made-man. If it seemed like God was getting awfully close to people when He set up His tent smack-dab in the middle of Israel’s camp, how much closer He came when He shifted the holy of holies beneath the bulging belly of a young maiden from Galilee. Now that’s Emmanuel—God-with-us, God-in-us, God-who-is-one-of-us.
For Mary is greater than Sarah, promised son though Isaac was. Mary is greater than Samson’s mother, savior though he also was. In Mary’s womb and nursing at her breast is the Lord of all. So it had to be, for if Mary had given birth to one who was less than God, then more would have been needed. To put it simply: if Mary is not the mother of God, then God is not our Father. For He must, and He did, become like us in all things, and yet remain like His Father in all things, that in all things He might redeem us by His blood.
Simultaneously virgin and mother—Mary is the icon of the virgin bride of Jesus who bears all her children in the image and likeness of her husband. She was the first to be in communion with the flesh and blood of Jesus. She is the preeminent receiver of the Word from the Father. Higher and more glorious than the cherubim and seraphim, this bearer of the eternal Word gives voice to the praise of all creation as she sings the most heavenly hymn ever uttered by an earthly tongue.
But Mary is not alone, for what she received, of Him you have partaken. The Word became flesh to make your flesh into Word. Into your sin-infested body is placed the body of the Word, the antidote for life, to make you new by union with Him. The Father wraps His Son in the swaddling clothes of bread and lays that bread from heaven within the manger of your mouth. The rock from whence Israel drank is pierced so that a lifeless corpse becomes an ever-flowing chalice that pours into you the liquid of life.
You who deserve nothing good are given everything good and more. For you are given Jesus. The Jesus born of Mary, the Jesus who bore your iniquities, the Jesus who was borne on the clouds to God’s right hand—this Jesus is yours and you are His. You are woven into His divinity through His humanity and this cord of three strands cannot be broken. It is the rope of salvation that binds you to the Father in the unity of the Spirit. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the blessed virgin Mary, because through her womb came the One makes everything out of nothing for you.