The Same, But Different.
Sweat pearls on her brow even as her breath forms the cold into small vanishing clouds of exhalation that come smaller and faster when her womb contracts. You could see it, as Joseph does, her breath condensed into vapor for a moment in the frigid air, but she doesn’t. Her eyes are either clenched tight (as if by doing she could ward off the blazing pain that broadens impossibly with every minute) or they are wide and rolling and searching, appealing for some refuge from the mounting agony that seems to hold her whole being in its thrall.
She writhes, she groans.
She breathes harder as another wave envelops her belly, just nine short months ago still the lithe torso of a girl. My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior – the words had tumbled from her lips melodiously, irrepressibly then, borne aloft by the Holy Spirit.
The animals in the stable watch impartially. They know this grisly, earthy ritual, fraught with danger and blood and too often shadowed by its dark sister, death. The donkey sniffs the air, treads the dusty ground warily as Mary cries out. They’ve seen and heard and smelled it before, this arduous and perilous path life travels into the world.
It is the same, the same way all babies have always been born. But this time it is also different.
The animals smell this, too – no, they sense it, a holy hush from firmament to earth unlike any since the very beginning. Within the silence is an imminence, an almost unbearable anticipation poised to break into exultant joy. It seems the very rocks will cry out.
She heaves now, undone by this seismic agony binding her body.
It is the same, the same suffered by her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother’s mother all the way back to the exiled Eve.
But this time… it is different.
“Mommy, how is God born and not born?” my eight-year-old daughter asks, guilelessly. I’ve read her the first chapter of John, how Jesus was with God in the beginning and all things were made through Him. But she’s also heard the Christmas story a hundred times: baby Jesus, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger, born beneath a sky glittering with angels and bannered with glory. And now her little mind strains to reconcile the two, like my little mind does, too.
Born, as a baby, utterly dependent, in a remote and forgettable part of the world and in the wildly risky way all human babies are born: the same.
But conceived unlike any other baby, and somehow eternal, with God in the beginning: different.
“Well…” I begin. But I struggle to reconcile it, too, and wonder at the beautiful simplicity with which she asks. Born, and not born. The Savior of the World, God incarnate, yet also fully of our own human family, unafraid to call us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11).
Fully human. Fully God. The same. But different.
Left to our own sin-stained imaginations, we humans invented a pantheon of gods who were either abstracted or fallible, counterfeit-holy or too human. They could not save. And then the true and only God did the unimaginable: He became one of us. The same, but different.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15
So the same that He enters into the dark heart of our sin and brokenness, the very crux of our desolation. So different that His love overcomes our dark, radiates through it as wild and inextinguishable light, this dark that seemed impenetrable night now shot through with glittering luminance, with Hope.
So the same and so different that He himself is our hope: both unutterable holiness and irreducible humanity, with us, among us, forever.
I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking for His Father to take away the cup of unfathomable agony he was to drink for us, if there was any way to do so. But there was no other way. There was no other way to save us except the cross, and there was no other path to the cross except the Incarnation, when God in his infinite wisdom and mercy and beauty and mystery allowed His fullness to dwell in a baby.
I heard the low, gut-born noises that escaped my throat as I pushed out my daughter a little over eight years ago as the sounds of someone or something else. “Ashley, I need you to slow down,” my infuriatingly calm midwife gently but firmly said. “I—” I gasped, “I— CAN’T!” and I heaved forward again, the ravening need to get the baby out finally subsuming my instinct for self-preservation. I heaved and felt my body set ablaze and in a paroxysm of horror and wonder looked down to see my daughter’s head. Her body slid out and she was in placed in my arms and it was impossible to parse out shock and awe and joy in the aftermath of emotion.
Was this how Mary felt, too, I wonder?
Shock at the magnitude of the ordeal which had just ravished her young body, the afterpains still riveting it. Joy and awe that a child was born into this world. The same. Yet she knew, too, that this child was different. The amazed shepherds came and gazed at her baby with a breathless reverence that fascinated her and then ran off to broadcast the news far and wide with ecstatic abandon. But Mary quietly pondered these things as treasures, the angel’s words and the Holy Spirit’s whispers and John the Baptist jumping in Elizabeth’s womb and those stultified shepherds, all of it rooting deep down into her heart as she held and nursed her baby.
Her baby. This tiny human with eyes still finding their focus. He gurgles, he yawns, he tests the movement of his newly freed limbs. She strokes his downy skin, marvels at the sweetness of his features and the involuntary newborn expressions they make – a grimace here, a contented smile there. She laughs. She adores him.
Her baby. King of Kings, The Savior of the World. The same, but different.
Fully human, fully God: this is the wonder of the Incarnation, God’s eternally resonant Yes and Amen, the wonder of He who is our hope.
Ashley is an artist, writer, wife, mama, and second generation poultry enthusiast. She believes in vulnerability and telling the whole truth because that is precisely what allows the whole of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ to emerge, full-bodied and dimensional, dazzling in kaleidoscopic patterns of love and grace.