My youngest child was born very early one November morning. It was not an easy birth, and my wife, Judy, was utterly exhausted. I let her sleep for a couple of hours. Then, with the first light of dawn, she awoke and immediately wanted to hold her baby, her first son.
We were all alone in a private room. I sat on the edge of the bed while Judy did what all mothers do, whether it’s the first baby or the fourth or the sixth. Holding him, she opened up the receiving blanket and examined him from head to foot. She caressed his ears and ran her fingers along his nose and chin. She fingered his chubby arms with their crevices of baby fat. She took off his diaper and examined there too. Yes, it really was a boy! She rubbed her hands over his legs and held up his tiny feet, all scaly and red. She was a mother receiving, preening, and loving her newborn baby.
We don’t know what Mary did that morning in the cave-like stable at Bethlehem. Was she cold? Was she afraid? Did she weep with worry about what they were going to do, this homeless couple so far from family? The Bible tells us just one thing about Mary on the morning of that birth that changed the world: “She kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
But like all mothers, she must have done what Judy did. She uncovered her baby as much as she could in that chilly, dank space. She examined him from head to toe, caressed his tiny body, touched his perfect fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn’t so amazing to her or to Joseph, but to me the most amazing sight she laid her eyes on was the stub that protruded from his belly, the freshly-cut, already-withering cord that had sustained his life in her womb—the cord through which he received her nourishment, her very life. When you really think about it, this is the amazing thing: This child, the long-promised Son of God, has a belly button.
The first chapter of John is his version of the Christmas story, if you can call it that. It’s not much of a story. At first glance it seems more like a heavy theological treatise. But if you read it well, it sings.
In the Beginning
It begins—well, it begins in the beginning, in the vast reaches of eternity, where God is all that exists. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1, NRSV).
Already John confronts us with the mystery that stands at the heart of the church’s doctrine and worship: the plurality of God, the community of divine persons that is before all things—the Trinity. The splendid, loving isolation of this divine community was not enough. God created a creation that was an extension of the love that is God’s very being. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3-5).
But then, a few verses later, John moves from the splendid far reaches of eternity to the soil of this planet, the flesh and bones of our mortal bodies. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14).
At Bethlehem the Word, the Logos, the origin and destiny of the whole creation came to us encased in our flesh. God comes to us as a baby. God has a belly button.
We all have a belly button. It’s either an innie or an outie, but that doesn’t matter. What does it tell us? It says that we are part of the human family. An umbilical cord bound you to your mother, and through it you were nourished. Her blood, her oxygen sustained your life; her antibodies protected you. When you were born, the cord was cut, and you became an independent person. But the belly button reminds you that you are tied to the whole human family. You are not really independent.
The incarnation means that God now has a belly button. He is bound forever to the human race, and that remnant of an umbilicus proves it.
It’s crucial to understand that we are talking about God here. We’re not saying that some part of God, some spark of divinity, came to be with us in Jesus while the real God remained behind. God cannot be parted out like that. The three-personed God, the holy Trinity, is eternally one, and each person interpenetrates the other. As Jesus constantly reiterated, you cannot have the Son without the Father or the Father without the Son, and you can't have either without the Holy Spirit.
God Is Born
So we must truly say that God was born at Bethlehem. As Mary labored, the Godhead crowned. And then one of the divine persons was expelled into the chilly night air. God was lifted lovingly by human hands, cleaned, and wrapped in cloths. God was laid at Mary’s breast to suck with hunger and contentment. God slept while angels spoke to shepherds in the field. God joined the human race.
Can that be right?
Can we ascribe that kind of weakness, that kind of frailty, that kind of vulnerability to almighty God? The problem is not with God, but with our ideas about God. We think of God’s almightiness by our own standards of absolute power and total control. In other words, we think of God—we reduce God, I should say—to our ideas of what power looks like: control, invulnerability, and domination. Real men don’t cry, we say. Real gods don’t become babies.
There are basically two kinds of religion in the world: the going-up kind and the coming-down kind. The going-up kind is marked by an above-us God who is holy and untouchable. But perhaps by supreme effort and spiritual discipline we can climb up to God.
When you look closely, most every religion in the world is the going-up kind. It’s the quest for holiness, climbing up to God by following the rules, going through the rituals, making the pilgrimages here and there. It’s all going-up religion. As far as I can tell, there is only one coming-down religion, and that’s the one that gathers to celebrate a baby born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is the staggering uniqueness of the Christian faith. This is the good news. The Word became flesh; God became human.
Christmas shows us that God’s omnipotence manifests itself precisely in its capacity to let go, to love, to be vulnerable. In creation God showed his power by moving over, by making room for a universe and for a human imagebearer in the universe with a will of its own. God did not create humanity so he could dominate us; he created to let us dominate. He gave us dominion even though we might screw it up. God did not create the world to run it like a despot or control it like a puppeteer; he moved over to make a place beside himself for the world he made. That’s the power of God. This is why Paul says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).
God Is Changed
But there’s more. In the incarnation, God is forever changed. At Christmas, God began a new relationship with the creation. Athanasius, that great theologian of the early church, went so far as to say that since the Son of God was not always incarnate in human flesh, the birth at Bethlehem marks an entirely new era in the life of God. God and humanity are now welded together in Jesus Christ—you can’t have one without the other anymore.
When Christ was born at Bethlehem, a new human being appeared. Humanity got a new start. To put it crassly, the gene pool of our fallen humanity was united with the very substance of divinity in Christ. God came to this earth and lived the authentic human life for all people. He died our death under God’s judgment and rose again to live forever. Everything that happens to Christ happens to those who are joined to him in faith and baptism.
Some Christians seem to have the impression that Jesus went slumming during his time on earth, and that in his ascension he resumed his place as God, leaving behind that weak and sordid human nature. In fact, the glory and grace of the ascension is precisely that the Lord Jesus took our humanity to God’s throne. In the words of Christopher Wordsworth’s ascension hymn,
You have raised our human nature
on the clouds to God’s right hand;
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with you in glory stand.
One way we can describe what salvation means is that we finally become truly human. Irenaeus, one of the great early church fathers, put it this way: “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.” That’s what we become in Christ. The goal of our salvation is not to cast off our humanity like a tattered garment, but to come into our full humanity. That’s what it means to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, NIV). We become truly human, as he is.
That’s where Christ is leading us. That’s the astounding miracle of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas every year. Christ, our brother—belly button and all—is with God. Now nothing can separate us from God’s love, for in Jesus Christ, we join in the community of the holy Trinity. And finally, “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2, NIV).
As Mary pondered that morning, as she fondled and received her newborn baby, she could hardly have imagined all this. But as we ponder the same event this Christmas morning so many centuries later, we begin to touch the fringes of the mystery—the mystery of God’s love come down to us; the mystery of the Word made flesh. It all began that night in a stable at Bethlehem, when God became a human being so that we human beings, hopelessly lost in sin, might truly share in the glory of God through our belly-button brother, Jesus Christ.
Charles Wesley captures the awesome truth in a beloved Christmas hymn we will sing:
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
- How does the idea of God having a belly button strike you?
- What insights open up regarding Vander Zee’s statement that because of that belly button “[God] is bound forever to the human race.”
- “We think of God’s almightiness by our own standards of absolute power and control.” How do you relate to a God of vulnerability?
- What does it mean for Jesus to be fully human? What does it mean for you to be fully human?
- Vander Zee says that most every religion in the world is the “going-up” kind: a quest for holiness, going through rituals, making pilgrimages. Do our liturgical and religious practices differ from those of other religions in this regard? In what way?
- How can you penetrate more deeply the mystery of “God’s love come down to us”? How will this truth impact your Christmas celebration?