Healing happens gradually. Whether we’ve suffered a cut or broken a limb, our flesh takes time to mend.
The same can be said for our hearts. Neither mourning the loss of a loved one nor forgiving a betrayal happens in an instant.
We cannot force the healing process. Oh, we can hinder it and even set it back. Improper wound care invites infection. Harboring grievances contaminates our heart with bitterness.
But, even when we tend our physical and our spiritual wounds properly, the healing itself happens to us. We are made whole by a force greater than ourselves.
Since we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, you may justly be wondering why I’m talking about wounded flesh and fractured hearts. My answer is short, but it will take some explaining. When we say that Jesus is our Savior, we mean that he is our Healer.
You see, God healed us by becoming a human. That’s what the angel meant when she said to the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” (Luke 2:11)
The Greek word for salvation means healing. Jesus frequently uses the word after cleansing lepers, making paralytics kick up their heals, and leading the formerly speechless in song. “Your faith has saved you,” he says. Or to give the alternate translation, “Your faith has healed you.”
In Jesus, God saves us by taking on frail human flesh. The Incarnation heals us.
We will finally arrive at perfect, eternal union with God and all of God’s children. But we are being saved even as we make our beds and wash our clothes and chauffeur our kids and teach our classes and argue our cases and sit alone with our thoughts at the end of the day. Sometimes, we will even notice.
For instance, I was saved on my first day at a new school. I was terrified by new faces, a new building, and a teacher that resembled the Wicked Witch of the West. Another first grader put his arm around me and said, “I’m Tony, I’ll be your friend.”
Jesus saved me through a speech pathologist when I was in my early twenties. Burdened with a speech impediment for my whole life, I had always felt like a deformed outsider. Following surgery to correct the cleft palate that had caused my speech impediment, that speech pathologist made me listen to my own new voice on a recording device. To my utter surprise, I sounded—and then I felt—normal for the first time in my life.
My mother was saved on a Christmas morning only months before she died. The death of my little sister Marie had grieved my mom since I was a boy. When my mom came through the front door that morning, our three-year-old daughter Meredith ran to her grandmother, arms flung wide. “Oma, Oma, Oma!” she shouted. My mother held her little girl in her arms and her heart was healed in ways we both had thought impossible.
As a person of faith, I see Jesus in these moments. You have your own moments, too. If we genuinely know salvation, we know it first as an experience that makes life worth living. It becomes a theological doctrine only upon reflection.
God saves us by becoming a human. The Incarnation heals us.
Yes, we are saved by the cross. And yet we are also saved by the manger. As William Porcher Dubose was fond of saying, the manger and the cross are two dimensions of God’s redemptive embrace of humanity.
Especially here in the South we hear about Jesus’s death on the cross and the forgiveness of our sins. Lent invites us to walk the way of the cross each year and helps us mine the depths God’s suffering love as atoning sacrifice.
Christmastide issues an invitation to an equally powerful encounter with God’s transforming love. And yet many of us are far less familiar with how the birth of Jesus itself saves us.
This has not always been so. The great theologians of the ancient Church focused on the Incarnation. For instance, the Cappadocian Fathers—St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus—taught us that what God does not assume, God does not redeem.
In other words, by becoming human—by assuming human flesh—God redeemed humanity itself.
God became a particular man: Jesus. Simultaneously, God takes on not just the flesh of one person but also the nature of all humanity. God restores our very essence, our defining characteristic. That may be a foreign thought to you. To explain, I have to go back to creation itself and then to the fall.
God created humans in the divine image.
All creation bears the mark of our Maker like Mozart’s symphonies convey their composer’s identity. As the medieval Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure might put it, God’s fingerprints are on everything.
You’ll find God’s fingerprints on the human frame and mind and soul, but there is something infinitely more within us. The image of God resides in us, defines our very nature. We are what we are by aspiring to and, always imperfectly, living up to the divine image etched within us by the Creator of all things.
That, at least, was the plan. The story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit conveys to us that something has gone wrong in our spiritual genetic code. In the fall, the image of God was distorted and obscured. Our code was corrupted.
Originally designed to reflect God’s image to everyone and everything we encounter, we find ourselves anxiously consumed with our own image. Are we accomplished enough, rich enough, fit enough, good looking enough? Will people admire our accomplishments enough to accept us? Will we be found out and rejected? Will we be named for the fraud we fear ourselves to be?
Created to nurture, we too frequently seek to control and to dominate.
Made by God to be complemented and enlarged by the endless variety around us, we shrink from and even lash out at difference. Instead of welcoming the stranger as the child of God, we launch a preemptive strike against a presumed enemy.
The fall did not utterly destroy the image of God. But the fall left that image seriously compromised.
When God became the man—well, the baby—Jesus, God took on the particular flesh of that little Jewish kid. God also took into himself the image of God that we all share. God took the very essence of humanity within the divine being. And God restored that image to its originally intended glory and dignity.
In Jesus, God is healing us right down to the marrow of our being. In the Church, we cooperate with this healing in Baptism. We die to an old self-centered life that Jesus might raise us to new life in him. In the Holy Eucharist, we give our shabby, fractious selves to Jesus just as we are. He returns us to ourselves as the very Body of Christ.
Our healing may be so incremental that, at points, it seems not to be happening at all. And then at some unexpected moment God’s transforming grace shows itself. Maybe in some spectacular way like a night sky filled with singing angels. Maybe in some small and tender way. Like in a manger on a back street in a small town off the beaten path.
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