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Hic Incarnatus Est

Rev. Dan Smith
Tue, Dec 24

 Christmas Eve

On a recent trip to Israel and Palestine, I did what countless Christians have done throughout the centuries. I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  It’s said to be the oldest church in the world, with parts of it dating back to the 4th century.  I was there this past January after a light snow had fallen across Holy Land.  The Christmas trees and lights were still up in the surrounding Manger.  Gathered from all around the world and especially at this time of year people line up for hours inside the Byzantine basilica elbowing and squeezing their way down a narrow staircase to a small basement chapel also known as the cave of the nativity.  Despite all the shuffling, jockeying and flashing of cameras, most who visit are able to find a moment amidst the chaos to kneel down and place their fingers or even their lips upon a medallion embedded in the stone floor. Engraved on the star are the Latin words: Hic Incarnatus Est.

 In his book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, James Carroll offers a powerful explanation of this inscription.  Hic means “here,” he writes.  He goes on to translate the phrase before expanding it’s meaning to encompass the Holy Land writ large: 

 “The Word became flesh here,” so Christians say.  More broadly, Muhammad ascended to heaven from here, so Muslims say….  God dwells in the city, here: so Jews says bowing before [the Western Wall]. For once, the abstractions of belief, the limitations of human capacity to assign language to the unspeakable, or to apply categories of knowledge to the unknowable – all of this is transformed by the collective experience shared in different ways by Jews, Christians and Muslims, that the Holy One touched earth here.”

 I remembered this when I was in that tiny chapel.  At first, I couldn’t help but shake my head> I was amazed that people were tripping over themselves to see what many earnestly believed was the spot!  Hic?   Here?   Really?.... I thought to myself.  In that musty, crowded basement full of the most lowly, most derided specimen in all of human being – “the tourist,” of which I was one of course. As if the Holy One would keep company with people who would actually touch their lips to that floor, put their lips to what is arguably the most kissed and so unhygienic spot on the face of the planet!  As if God might somehow continue to show up in Bethlehem, torn a part as its been by endless strings of tourist shops let alone by two millennia of violence, conflict and war.  But then I began to wonder. I began to wonder as that word, Hic, that sense of here, followed me wherever I traveled.  Through the rest of that little town of Bethlehem….hic! God incarnate here!  In the gentle waves of the Sea of Galilee…hic! God incarnate here! At a quiet moment in an olive grove ..hic! In the stories I heard of Israelis and Palestinians working for peace…hic!  In the reading of scripture with a dear friend at the Western Wall ….hic!  And in breaking of bread and chatting with a stranger at an airport café, hic!  And, God still incarnate, all the way back here, in this little town of Cambridge.  Hic, God incarnate here, even here. Hic incarnatus est.  I couldn’t shake it!  I might as well have the words tattooed on my arm. 

 For Christians, of course, Hic Incarnatus Est, not only refers to a place, but to a person, and to God’s word, God’s love, God’s justice, God’s very being made known in a historical figure, a Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And with this in-breaking of God’s love in human form, God is incarnate not only in Jesus, but in humanity writ large. God has come to be here, with us, showing us a way of life and love that abides through the ages!

 I wonder how many of us may struggle to take this message to heart at this or any time of year. On the one hand, there’s the relentless distraction of our consumerist culture.  Where can we find the time or room in our busy inns for such reflection?  But on the other hand, our struggle may be partly the result of our tradition. At this time of year especially, I fear we may put too much emphasis on the searching for God, or on the journey to Bethlehem, as if God is only to be found out there or over there somehow!  I did a google search for “the search for God.” 1.27 billion hits! And yes, for better or worse “The Search for God at Harvard” was number 3 on the list.  But amidst this searching and searching, online or otherwise, how often do we consider that God may be searching for us? Have we ever considered that the holiest of sites in God’s eyes may not be away in a manger, but right here in our hearts, in our stories, in our lives, our joys and our sorrows. For those shepherd and magi who journeyed to Bethlehem, and even for us in our own seeking and searching for lasting meaning and hope, maybe we should flip the script at least for a time!   For when we set out in some new phase of spiritual exploration, or even on a pilgrimage to holy sites, whether at Bethlehem, or Qumran, or even Nepal, the agenda and itinerary are still ours to control, and what we seek is still so often out there!  But what if it’s the other way around as well? What if it’s God who journeys towards us, searching for us, coming to us, maybe even to tour and explore all those holy sites that are within us, those stories and sacred places in our lives, whether of birth, or love or loss.  What if God has the same zeal, passion, patience of a great archeologist that stands ready to chip away at the stone walls of our hearts if only to break through and find a holy ground of genuine human-divine encounter, right here within us, and within our relationships to each other? 

  Some of us already get this, and know that the way to find God is to stop our seeking and striving, to breathe, to listen, to let go and let God find us.  And yet therein lies another challenge, for how often do we recognize that we even have need for God. Think about it.  How often do you hear yourself saying “I’m fine, thanks.  I’m good!” Like those proverbial ducks, we may cruise through our life on the surface, calm and steady as she goes, but underwater we are paddling like hell!   And still we are prone to think…God doesn’t need to come for me, at least not right now.  God doesn’t need to come for me!  Go ahead and let God be born to someone who could really needs help!  Let God come to those in the hospitals, in the prisons and to those pour misguided tourists in Bethlehem.  Fair enough, but I wonder if all of this thinking let’s God stay out there, or even up there, an idea, a construction, an artifact, or maybe a reality, but if so a reality for another person, time or place.  Let God show up here, though?    Here in my heart?  Here in my body?  Hic Incarnatus Est? Let a savior come here, just for me?  Who knew Christmas could be so challenging! 

And yet this hic, this sense of God being here with us is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas – the birth of the Holy One, who touched and touches the earth, who comes to us, and finds us, where we are, and who shows a deeper way of world transforming love and justice and community that we may never again be lost nor without hope.  Here amidst the beloved and bedraggled chaos of our family lives, hic, yes here!  Hic, here, right here amidst a grieving heart, here amidst our needs for rest and courage and grace, here amidst our heartfelt prayers for peace in the world, here in the tender words shared between a family reunited, here in the glory of our singing and in the warmth of a candle lit sanctuary!  Hic Incarnatus Est!   Here is where God’s love is made known.  Here is where Christmas happens.  On this most holy night of the year, could it be that we all slow down just enough, that we press pause on our searching, our striving and our self-sufficiency for long enough to let God come and find us and meet us, here, right where we are, just as we are?   O Holy Night!  Glory be to God in the highest, to our God who finds us, meets us and stays with us in light, in hope and love everlasting.  Amen.

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