the fourth light: incarnation
Christmas is about incarnation, about the son of God becoming flesh and taking on our humanity. When I think about incarnation, I am reminded of this beautiful sentiment from Saint Theresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand after dark that Thursday, and checked into the hotel where my husband Bill had been staying since he arrived here for business a few days before. This would be the first time I travelled anywhere in Asia. Bill had been to Asia countless times before, traversing China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Indonesia. For me, travel in Asia was very much outside of my comfort zone. Moving to Singapore was the extent of my Asia experience. But I was willing to try this new adventure. Once in the hotel room, I opened the curtains to the lights of the city. Air conditioned and comfortable, I felt a sense of self confidence and hope. The Fodors guide I had carried along with me on the flight suggested all kinds of historical sites and neighborhoods to explore, and Bill and I had a few ideas for the weekend ahead. Tomorrow, though, Bill would be attending meetings with his Asia team and I’d be on my own in this strange, new international city. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit in a hotel all day. So I went online and found a review for an English-speaking Thai cooking class and registered.
The next morning, I asked the hotel for help in getting a taxi to take me to the class, and gave the concierge the name and address of the cooking school so he could tell the driver where I needed to go. Once the cab left the hotel grounds, I began to take in all of the sights and sounds of Bangkok. It was pretty overwhelming! Unbelievably heavy traffic in which drivers seemed not to care much about the rules of the road, scooters and motorcycles driving every which way, stifling, oppressive heat, and so much pollution and noise. The driver seemed nice enough, though every time he spoke to me in Thai I found myself nodding and making non-descript, non English verbal responses. I pulled up google maps on my phone and followed our route. As I followed along on the GPS, I realized that my cab driver didn’t seem to be taking me to the cooking class. With no way of communicating with him, and no way to be completely sure, I simply waited until he pulled the car up in front of a little Thai house. It was clear now that we were nowhere near the destination on my GPS. He began to gesture for me to pay and get out of the back seat, and I began shaking my head NO vigorously, using body language to make very clear that I was not going to be left here on the sidewalk. So, he hopped out of the driver’s seat, opened the back door, and tried to take me by the arm and remove me from the taxi. I continued to protest. It finally dawned on me that perhaps he could read my GPS, even though most of it was in English. He took a look at the little screen, scratched his head, thought for a minute, and then, he understood. And began to laugh. And laugh. And laugh, realizing the mistake.
Once back in the driver’s seat, he drove me to the cooking school, where I faced the next obstacle: crossing a one-way, six-lane road of heavy, high-speed chaos; scooters and motorbikes, taxis and delivery trucks, horns honking and people gesturing, no traffic lights or cross walks in sight. It was completely overwhelming. I honestly could not imagine myself getting out of the car here either, even though we were now in the right location. This lovely man sensed my trepidation, and this time, when he got out of the driver’s seat, and reached out with his worn, gentle hand to take me by the arm, I willingly complied. He literally put himself between me and the oncoming traffic, and assuredly guided me across the road. Miraculously, all six lanes of traffic stopped. Once safely on the other side, I paid this driver, my guardian angel, and headed in to the class. It was fantastic! I learned about Thai cooking ingredients, met some English speakers from around the world, and had my fill of the spicy, fantastic dishes we prepared together.
It turns out that the nice taxi driver who had brought me had unexpectedly waited for me to emerge from the cooking school at the end of the class. Still parked across the busy street, he waved frantically to get my attention, helped me cross the road again, and dropped me safely back at the hotel where our adventure had begun several hours before.
Today, as I tell this story, I am struck with the overwhelming grace of it all. At the time, I was simply overwhelmed. Once I was safely back in the hotel room, I sat down and cried. My first solo outing in Asia was so far from how I expected it to go. And yet this cab driver who spoke no English still understood me, felt compassion for me, and cared for me. In an absolutely breathtaking way, this Thai stranger illustrates incarnation. His were the eyes that looked at me with compassion. His were the feet that led me across that busy street to do good. His were the hands that held the steering wheel, and that gently held me by the elbow as he guided me. His were the hands, the feet, the eyes, the body.
Now, whenever I think of incarnation, of God becoming human, and of our call to being Christ on earth, I think of my delightful, caring, joyful, compassionate Thai friend. Mostly, I think about his hands, and how hands do Christ’s work on earth. Particularly in December, all of our hands are busy caring for others. We decorate with our hands, untangling lights and hanging ornaments and tying bows. We drive our cars to run the countless errands. Our hands give to others, reach for others, receive from others. Our hands give blessing and praise, our hands give comfort and love, and our hands pray. During Advent, we sing, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we yearn for God to be with us. We can also reflect on how we are each Christ’s hands and heart.
When I made the connection between the incarnation and the compassionate care with which my taxi driver helped me, the invitation, for me, was to notice the grace in the situation and to delight in the holiness of my experience in Thailand. For all of us, the invitation in Advent is to contemplate the ways in which our hands, feet, eyes, and body are the incarnation. To notice how we care for others. To delight in our breath, and our heart, and our compassion. And to connect these things with the infant’s coming on Christmas.
I return again to Michael Taylor’s quote: “Grace happens when life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so I pray: May your awareness of people that are Christ’s hands in this world enrich and grace your lives. And may you delight in the grace of being Christ’s hands on earth.
conclusion of the series
My hope is that you’ve been able to find some grace here, during this beautiful, holy Season. And as you’ve moved through these days of Advent, I hope you’ve been able to rest in this idea: Grace happens when your human life is lived and celebrated authentically. In conclusion, I leave you with this lovely blessing written by one of my favorite spiritual authors, John O’Donohue,
“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”
[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]