Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The King Incognito

There is an old story of a monarch who worried his court by his habit of slipping out of the palace by night, dressed in the clothing of a peasant, and spending anywhere from a few hours to several days moving incognito among the people.

At length some of his close advisors came to him and asked him not to do it any more, and to them the king replied, “I cannot rule my people wisely and well unless I know how they live.”

It is said that this practice produced three different reactions as different kinds of people became aware of it. The common people loved him for it, and actually became quite good at recognizing him, enjoying his company and sharing their lives. It provoked the anger of some royal officials, who were accustomed to mistreating the king’s subjects, and now knew that not only would he find out, but he might experience their misdeeds first-hand. And for a small but influential circle, the king’s practice led them to be more careful and respectful of everyone they met.  Not knowing where the king might be, they treated everyone as a king in disguise.  This started because they did not want to accidentally offend the king, but before long they found that by respecting the peasants, the respect was returned, that there was less crime and fewer problems than there had been before, and the kingdom changed for the better.

At Christmas we celebrate the moment when we believe God did something like the king did in the old stories, coming among us to search out and reverse the darkness that had overtaken the world.  It is the great belief of Christianity that we serve a God who, beyond our ability to imagine it fully, descended from beyond time and space, to live the life we live, and walk among us, claiming no special advantage over ordinary people.

This Emmanuel, which means “God-With-Us,” did a great deal else besides: serving, healing, teaching, modeling, forgiving sin, sacrificing himself, conquering death, but it was all done without the trappings of power of which the world is so fond.  It was done in the midst of common men and women, with the powerful and self-important left on the outside looking in.

The great WHAT, is declared in the sublime poetry of John: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The WHEN, WHERE and HOW is told in the reports of Mary, passed along, perhaps to John or Peter, then to Luke and Matthew.  Come! Let us in imagination and in awe go to Bethlehem and see this thing, which the Lord has made come to pass -- and let us rejoice in the wonder of what we find!

Howard H. MacMullen, Jr.
© December, 2011

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