Years ago, cruising the periodicals list of the Davidson College library I ran across something called the Illustrated London News. The emphasis of this particular issue was a retrospective on the D-Day invasion, and one particular article caught my eye, a column on the role of chaplains in the D-Day invasion and subsequent operations. One story seemed straight out of an improbable plot for the old TV show “Hogan’s Heroes.”
In the summer of 1944, a group of German SS officers and a few scattered townspeople stood at attention as a US army chaplain and a small band of prisoners bore a covered casket to a shallow grave. The chaplain officiated in a dignified, abbreviated service. The stretcher was lowered; dirt was packed in around the grave; everyone departed. That night, a group of citizens came and dug up the buried remains. The grave robbers happened to be members of the Dutch Resistance, and the buried remains happened to be live ammo and guns that the chaplain and wounded officers had managed to conceal from their captors. These resources proved crucial to the Dutch Resistance’s efforts to hamper the Germans’ efforts to resist Allied operations.
The article moved on to other stories, but not before making this telling comment: “In one particular division, seven U.S. chaplains were killed and sixteen were captured. Most of these voluntarily chose captivity to be with their fellow soldiers.”
As we enter Advent, we not only anticipate the birth of the Christ child, but we contemplate the nature of the Incarnation. The behavior of those chaplains illustrates the meaning of the Incarnation in a profound way. Those chaplains willingly chose to give up their freedom, willingly accepted the starvation, disease, and abuse of barbed-wire confines to minister to their flock in distress. They willingly chose to identify with the suffering, the wounded, and the imprisoned. It is human nature to identify with others. But generally we prefer to identify with winners, with the Super Bowl champs or the World Series victors. No one wants to identify with the losers. Yet these chaplains chose to identify and dwell with the wounded, the suffering, the incarcerated. Duty did not demand such loyalty; love did. That is the very meaning of the Incarnation.
The Gospel of John perfectly expresses Christ’s person: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Advent season is designed not only to disclose who God is, but it reveals to us how God chooses to disclose to us who God is. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us! Like those chaplains, Christ chooses to identify with us in our vulnerability, in our weakness, in our suffering, and in our mortality. The Word chose to identify with us in all of our frustrating limitations. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our God is not a God who insulates us from suffering or vulnerability or loss, or grief or mortality. Rather our God chooses to identify with us and embraces our limitations with us. Unlike all other world religions, Christianity brings God out of the clouds and the transcendent realm and places God in our midst, helping us comprehend not only who God is, but who we are meant to be. That is the meaning of the Incarnation.
When we come to this Supper, it drives home the point of the Word becoming flesh. The very symbols that we hold in our hands – this is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you – these palpable symbols remind us that our God does not remain ethereal and remote, but dwells among us, accepting our vulnerability and our finitude in God’s own being. And so, as we partake of this Supper, let us recognize that the Word really has become flesh, like unto ours. The transcendent God has dwelt among us, thus becoming Emmanuel, “God with us.” That profound truth is what we underscore and celebrate through participation in our Lord’s Supper on this First Sunday of Advent.