Christ is born! Christos Raždajetsja! “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.” This is what he accomplishes today in that cave. He is restoring our likeness to God from which we have fallen.
If you have a new garment of pure white linen cloth and if you wear this garment too often or for all sorts of rough tasks and dirty jobs, it soon becomes stained. Beautiful, pure, white cloth becomes yellowed, stained, and imperfect. A contemporary American in this situation is likely simply to dispose of the garment and buy a new one. We are, in fact, in the commercial season of buying new things. Our culture and our economy is set up this way. It’s been called a throw-away culture and a consumer culture. But this is not the case with traditional cultures. A traditional textile worker would not give up on a garment even if it was stained beyond the power of any bleach, but might then take the stained white garment and dye it vibrant colors – blues and purples, reds and yellows and greens. A plain white garment becomes a coat of many colors. And the end result is a garment more beautiful even than the new unstained garment.
You know, a beautiful Chinese tea bowl breaks as easily as cheap second hand crockery. What to do then? We break a lot of bowls at my house. Probably, we break one every week. I like to tell the children, as I sweep up and throw away yet another broken bowl, that ceramic can last for a thousand years if properly cared for. This is true. But when the bowl is broken, sweeping it up and throwing it away isn't the only option. There is a custom among traditional Japanese craftsmen to take the broken pieces and fuse them back together. Now, some of us may do this with superglue, which can work well enough for a while – though the result is always compromised and inferior to a new and unbroken bowl. The cracks gradually worsen and the piece must eventually be thrown away anyway. The traditional Japanese craftsman, however, does not use superglue, but lacquer mixed with gold – a material more beautiful, precious, and strong then the ceramic the bowl was first made with. This is called kintsugi – golden joinery. And the cracks are made more visible, not less. They're emphasized by this technique, not hidden – but they're changed into things of beauty. And the bowl that was broken and then made whole is better and more beautiful than the bowl that was never broken.
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.”
I can tell you as a painter that, almost mysteriously, these reworked paintings often have a greater depth and beauty, at least to my eyes, than a pristine first image. I do love the masterful strokes of the sumi-e painter, who, with just a few rapid movements with an ink brush creates a fresh and startling image. But then the next few stages of a painting often render it overworked or muddy. It is only after this stage, when all is ruined, when the painter returns again to his easel, that he can restore the image and even go beyond restoration. If he is a great painter, the scars of the overwork and the stains are almost transfigured. They’re not obliterated, but made into things of beauty. They add a texture and depth I’ve found no other way to accomplish. And the painting at the end is even better and more beautiful than it was when it was fresh and new.
St. Athanasius gives us this image of the repainted portrait, in his work On the Incarnation. He explains, “Even so was it with the all-holy Son of God. He, the image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind after himself, and seek out his lost sheep, even as he says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’ This also explains his saying to the Jews: ‘Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ He was not referring to a man's natural birth from his mother, as they thought, but to the rebirth and recreation of the soul in the image of God.”
It is in and through the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate today, that our rebirth in the image of God is enabled. “Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.”
His ways of raising us up are marvelous. Wondrous are his works. He does not simply restore us to our starting point like some video game character that gets an extra life. As our almighty God, he could do that. He can do anything. If Jesus breaks a Chinese tea bowl, he can restore it to unbrokenness. But I think he prefers kintsugi. The power of Christ is greater than the power of Tide bleach. He can restore to whiteness a garment with any stain. But I think he prefers the craft of the dyer and the coat of many colors.
When he rises from the dead, remember, he still bears on his body the marks of his crucifixion. And these marks increase and do not diminish the beauty of his glorified body. By them, we are healed.
And when today he becomes for our salvation a baby, he does not become the same first-created Adam, unaffected by sin and suffering and death, but rather a new Adam. He takes on all the fragility and neediness of a baby. He makes himself utterly vulnerable and dependent upon his mother. As of today, the uncreated God nurses at his mother's breast. And if he does not, he feels the pain of hunger. He feels all the pains of life and will ultimately suffer even death.
Many of us sometimes long to go back to the way things were when we were younger, healthier, happier. We succumb to the bitter-sweetness of nostalgia, perhaps especially at this time of year.
In a similar way, maybe we wish we could go back to Eden. Maybe we get mad at Adam and Eve for spoiling things for us, as if we wouldn’t have spoiled them for ourselves, given the chance. Maybe we feel cheated of the simple life of the garden, where we could walk with the Lord in the cool of the day. But God does not send us back to Eden. He comes to us in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem has opened Eden for us.” He raises up the likeness that had fallen, not by erasing the consequences of our sin – our fragility and mortality – but by entering into them himself. He raises up by coming down. By emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. By becoming a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger where animals come to feed. Our Lord becomes our brother and Mary’s son. And our human nature is recreated in him.
Like the kintsugi – broken ceramic joined together with gold – he joins our broken humanity together with his divinity. He adds something better to us than was there in the first place. He doesn’t just patch us back together again as if with superglue, but makes us a new creation, even better than we were in the first place. He doesn’t just take us back to the way things were, but takes us to a new heaven and a new earth, more glorious even than that first created. And that heaven is a cave; the cherubic throne a virgin. And the manger has become the place where Christ, the incomprehensible God, lies down.
Jesus Christ is born. He leaves his hiding place in Mary’s womb and enters the cave. At this moment, for the first time in history, human eyes behold the human face of God. And even animal eyes first see the human face of God. The eyes of all creation are opened for the first time since they were shut in Eden.