This is the seventh article in our On the Incarnation series for the Nativity Fast.
In Brian Doyle’s introduction to his memoir, The Wet Engine, he writes, “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably: One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know. Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers. Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.” Doyle, a devout Catholic writer, passed away due to a brain tumor in 2017. He was only sixty years old. The Wet Engine, a reflection on his son, who was born with an incomplete heart, reveals much about the frailty of the human body. Doyle begins the book with a call to action: “Let us contemplate, you and I, the bloody electric muscle.”
And contemplate it he does, especially when it comes to one owner of a “bloody electric muscle” in particular—He whom we celebrate each year on the 25th of December:
He too was once a fertilized egg (Doyle writes), doubling and redoubling itself, forming endocardial heart tubes, myocardium and epicardium, the cells of what would be his heart miraculously migrating and fusing and dividing into the genius engineering of the four magic chambers, his amazing new heart beating beneath his amazing mother’s amazing heart after eight weeks […] and then mere moments later he is crying Eloi! Eloi! as he dies, he breathes his last, he yields up his spirit, his heart sludges to a halt on a cross on a bitter bleak afternoon; and then, three days later, in the oceanic black silence of the tomb in the garden […] There’s a heartbeat. And another. And another. And another….
Doyle celebrates all of God’s revelation simultaneously—Annunciation, birth, death, Resurrection. We do this as Orthodox Christians. Come Nativity, we’re already rejoicing in Pascha, and we call back to the Old Testament when we sing:
In the Red Sea of old,
A type of the Virgin Bride was prefigured.
There Moses divided the waters;
Here Gabriel assisted in the miracle.
Our liturgical calendar is more than cyclical—it blurs into itself. In celebrating Christ, we celebrate both Man and God, both Him who walked the Earth for a fixed number of rotations around the Sun, in a strict geographical location, as the Son of one specific human mother, and Him who is the Son of God, outside of Time itself. His story echoes back and back through all Creation and simultaneously stretches eternally and gloriously forward unto ages of ages.
Story, what Brian Doyle calls “prayer,” holds an essential place in Creation. Stories, like Christ, are in one sense bound by time—it can take hours to read and understand them. But you can pick up a book practically anytime, anywhere. You can start from the beginning, the middle, or the end, and still, the story remains the same. The characters freeze on any given page, patiently awaiting their cues. They don’t disappear when the reader closes the book, when the story is over. When we reread The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sacrifices himself again, and rises again. When we read Les Misérables, Fantine and Valjean risk their own lives for the sake of their daughter over and over and over. These fictional incarnations of Christ, along with many others, reflect the capital “I” Incarnation, God becoming Man, and show us that this Mystery isn’t limited to one moment in history.
Jesuit priest and Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, in the poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe:”
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlehems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn.
And so we come to the truth that the stories all around us, the New Bethlehems and New Nazareths, point to the image of God in Man. Jesus is both a wonderful storyteller and listener. His parables teach us about righteousness, about mercy and compassion and justice, but He also stops to humbly listen to others’ stories. He speaks to the woman with the flow of blood, the lame man lowered through the roof, the lepers, the Centurion, the Samaritan woman, the tax collectors, all of whom society had cast out, rejected.
We are called to follow His example, to listen to the stories of outcasts, the Other, whatever that may look like for us. For Christ, who fills all things, is born again in them. He is born in them yesterday, today, and tomorrow, even as He is born in us, for He took on our bones, our brains, our atoms, our stardust. What a Mystery, the Incarnation! What a Mystery, the human body! Weak, as Brian Doyle’s brain tumor and the missing pieces of his son’s heart show. But strong too, as we see through Story, in the constant struggle of humanity, the fights, the falling-downs, the getting-back-up-agains. As we see in our capacity to love, to love through our pain. Love that was and is and ever shall be enfleshed.
On Christmas Day of all days, I pray we stop closing our ears to others, to Christ in them. That we will enrich our lives with stories, both fictional and those of the common who-is-my-neighbor variety. The stories of those for whom there is no room in the inn. I pray that we will not say Christ was born, and that’s that, all done, we don’t have to think about our responsibilities to God and one another anymore.
Instead, let us walk forward together holding hands, both with one another and with the least of these. Today, we are penned into a new story by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—our Author. Let us cry aloud with peace and joy, not Christ was Born, but Christ IS Born!
See our call for articles if you would like to write for our On the Incarnation series, for which we will accept articles until January 6, the Feast of Theophany. See the On the Incarnation section in our Archives by Author for the other reflections in this series.
Helen Coats is an undergraduate student studying creative and professional writing at Purdue University in West Lafayette IN. Her essays and stories have appeared in Litmus, bioStories, Gingerbread House, One Teen Story, and Toasted Cheese. She is a priest’s kid and a fumbling francophone-in-training.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
The Lord grant you a blessed completion of the Fast.