I remember the crazy rocking of the plastic flowers on top of the little pump organ in response to Aunty Patsy’s efforts. She coaxed the Christmas carol through its ancient fittings, pressing the pedals below with exuberance. First up, in the annual program, the children’s Sunday school class of the Church of the Firstborn Church of God, we hurried to fall in line and to march onto the small raised stage, the rostrum of the one-roomed building that was our fellowship hall, our church.
According to rehearsal, we were to respond to the final chord blast from the organ with a synchronized bow from the waist — a goal we seldom if ever achieved, to everyone’s amusement. It took only the twenty-six of us to span the platform’s width. Dressed in our Christmas best, we sang with focused abandon, to the borrowed tune of the Neapolitan love song ‘O Sole Mio’, as curious visitors from the community peered in through the windows; and the congregation, including our parents, watched from the plain, smooth, wooden benches which formed the pews:
Down from His glory,
The ever-living story,
Our God and Saviour came,
And Jesus was His name;
Born in a manger,
To His own a stranger,
A man of sorrow, tears
The next programmed item — the Christmas story set to alphabetized rhyming verse — had been memorized over at least the three preceding months. With the creative variety that only children can muster, we delivered our lines, eliciting a colorful mix of responses from our audience: boisterous Amens!, outright good-natured laughter or deeply reverent, reflective murmurs, as Scriptural truth soothed or pierced humble, hearing hearts.
Oh, how I love Him!
How I adore Him,
My breath my sunshine,
My all in all!
The Great Creator
Became my Saviour
And all God’s fullness
Dwelleth in Him!
The congregation took up the culminating chorus of our song as, thankfully delivered of our weighty lines, we scrambled from the rostrum. Our teachers, Sisters Brown and Springer, patiently sorted the bottle-neck at the base of the narrow steps and shepherded us back into our rows.
The lights dimmed and fresh anticipation rippled through the small building as feedback from the portable amplifier drowned the introductory lines of the Scripture reading:
“(Microphone blare)… in the field abiding, watching over their flocks by night,”; then all was still.
But not even that jar to our tender ears quelled our anticipation, for we all knew it marked the entry of …the shepherds or wisemen!
Through the subsequent hush we heard the tap-tap-tapping on the red-tiled floors of broomsticks, converted to shepherd staffs; through the dimmed lights we discerned sisal cord teased out into bedraggled, makeshift beards for wisemen; and through our costumed deacons we heard, in the exuberant rounded lilt of the Jamaican Creole, the shepherd’s glad tidings of great joy. In standard English as well as the Jamaican patois they sought to capture the rough language of humble sheep herders or the polished delivery of wisemen from the East.
The laughter and conviviality which filled the room as they mock-stumbled down the narrow aisle, in search of the place where the Christ Child lay, was a mixture that only heaven could concoct.
There, in a small post-colonial, inner-city community of Kingston, Jamaica, Eternal Truth came down and was touched, tasted and handled by the lowly.
Just as the shepherds of old may have clumsily or expertly, but all worshipfully, passed the Lamb of God around from one to the other, in hushed awe, sharing in the wonder of observing God made flesh; even so the faithful shepherds of our small faith community were making the Gospel relatable to their parishioners with the pathos and humor. In the preferred dramatic medium and heart language of ones who lived difficult but dignified lives on the edge of society, they proclaimed the Good News and hearts were lifted to song and laughter:
Bringing us redemption
That in the dead of night
Not one faint hope in sight
God, gracious, tender
Laid aside His splendor,
Stooping to woo, to win, to save my soul.
Condescension, this idea of God stooping to reach us, met me again in primary school. The abstract theological concept of course, sailed over our heads from the lips of the parish priest/school rector. We were the elementary-aged students of St. George’s Girl’s Anglican Primary School, sitting obediently in the carved and stained wooden pews of the mini gothic-styled chapel across the alley from our school. The priest’s vestments and the grand tones of the pipe organ sought to lift our young minds and to help us accommodate the mysterious sounding attribute. The grand anthems and lofty homily ensconced in commanding chords – along with the required lace mantilla or ‘jippa-jappa’ straw hats, in the cool arched structure – were intended to give us a high view of God and accommodate in us the wonder of His stepping down. Condescension – a profound act that only God can perform in its truest sense – stooping the farthest, to reach us. We no doubt left the St. George’s Anglican chapel hushed, awed, and intellectually instructed but only time would reveal the effectiveness of the impartation. For now, we were just little girls proud of our mantillas, or glad to remove our hats and return to the serious business of break time games.
The accounts of Mary, Elizabeth and Zacharias – the triumvirate of Luke’s telling of the events leading up to the condescension of the second person of the God-head, Jesus, invited my reflection on and reaction to these two experiences which book-end my earliest introduction to this cosmic event. After all, if the Divine decides to break in on the human plane, our response ought to be as commensurate with the vastness of the act as possible. Question is: What does that look like? Is it caught like good laughter; taught and assented to like good doctrine or … something else?
Like the humble parishioners of my hometown church, Mary was exuberantly exultant, like one who dreamed, when she realized that Messiah was not only ‘coming down’ but coming down to and through her, one of “lowly estate” as she describes herself in her magnificat. She joyfully sang about all subsequent generations calling her blessed and dreamed out loud of the greedy and prideful rich being swept away forever, evil rulers cast down and the humble poor being fed and fulfilled. All this was quickly embraced as part of her personal story because of her ready, humble submission to God’s exaltation in and through her.
Her cousin Elizabeth, meanwhile hid herself away for five months, struck by the enormity of what was taking place in her aged and infertile womb — the gestation of Messiah’s forerunner. Yet she also burst out uncontrollably “with a loud voice”, when the baby in her womb leapt at the sound of Mary’s greeting, confirming Divine involvement in their previously ordinary, even reproachful, lives. She and her husband Zacharias were an infertile couple. Like Mary, Elizabeth struggled with the idea of the Holy One lowering Himself into the lap of their humble existence and she balked at even Mary’s approach, though she was the teenager’s senior, asking “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”. God’s approach altered (or is that altared?) all her societal norms but she received His grace in Mary’s visit and worshipped in prophecy:
“Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
Luke 1:45 NKJV
On the other hand, her husband, Zacharias, had such a lackluster response to his annunciation, as he carried out his priestly duties, that God’s mighty messenger was obliged to not only delineate the obvious wonder of this visitation for him but also emphasize it with a temporary bout of deafness and dumbness. Yet even this ‘slow to believe’ one eventually caught up, albeit after nine months. His faith, though well-informed by profession and lineage, was so muted by the decrements and limitations of his stage of life that he was not even willing to entertain the possibility of his involvement in God’s ‘coming down’. At the revelation of it, he may have almost broken his slate tablet in his zeal, as his own magnificat welled up and erupted in praise, which would have also been a fitting response.
Though it took the older couple a little longer, all three ultimately demonstrated the tension that exists when the human heart is rightly postured in love towards God: Awe and wonder coupled with humility and submission that is fueled by love.
God’s condescension in Jesus was a one-time eternal event, but Jesus’ incarnation is a daily call and reality for each of us to continually embrace. Each Christmas we can and ought to be ‘like those who dream’ and let our mouths be filled with laughter as we revel in the reality of God’s condescension in Christ and marvel at the wonder of it again and again. Regardless of our perception of our roles, status or season in life, with each opportunity we are presented to re-present Jesus, may we sooner prophesy, magnify and worship; like Mary declaring,
“Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Or more perfectly, like our Lord Himself, who willingly came down from the highest place of all.
Flesh and blood His substance
He took the form of man
Revealed the hidden plan
O glorious mystery
Sacrifice of Calvary
And now I know thou art the great I Am!
O how I love Him!
How I adore Him!
My breath my sunshine
My all in all.
The great Creator became my Savior
And all God’s fullness
Dwelleth in Him.