The Incarnation of God – his taking on of our human nature – began not in Bethlehem, in nine months time, and not in Jerusalem, 33 years later, but in Nazareth, in the region of Judah. The Angel Gabriel brought the news of God’s incarnation to Mary in a place that was about as well known as Tolmie. Tolmie, you ask? Where’s that? Well, it happens to be the location of the most far-flung church in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, some 230km north east of the city, up in the Victorian high country. There’s nothing much there other than a pub (of course!), and as far as I’m aware, no-one famous has ever come from there.
The Nazareth of Mary’s time and the Tolmie of our time have much in common. They are located far from the centre of things; they are tiny hamlets with just enough of a population to earn a name; and nothing much of note has happened there. We’ve gotten used to the name ‘Nazareth,’ but in truth, at the time of the conception of Jesus, it didn’t feature at all. It was not until the events recorded in the Bible had occurred that it even got a mention in historical records. In the scheme of human affairs, Nazareth was a nowhere place. But in the scheme of God’s affairs, Nazareth was the centre of the universe, the location where the divine chose to enter human affairs and God got personal, becoming one of us.
The incarnation of the Son of God reveals just how different God’s ways are from human ways. Judah, and the tribe of Benjamin, was, as the Prophet Micah noted, the least of the tribes of Israel. Yet it was where God went to find his anointed one, David, who would become his first King of Israel. He, too, was the least – the youngest – of the sons of Jesse. Yet, all these ‘leasts’ by human measures, would be the means for God to reveal his altogether different measure – the measure not of appearances, but of the heart.
This ‘heart shaped’ measure of God’s ways among his People would reveal itself again in that least of places, when some 1,000 years later God found Mary with a heart ready to say ‘yes’. Not in Jerusalem, the city of the king, and certainly not in Rome, the city of the emperor, but in Nazareth, a nowhere pin-prick on the map of the world.
From Nazareth, carrying hidden within her the human life of God, Mary – that least of women of her day – would make her way to a place that didn’t even have a name, to allow God to reveal himself to another woman who was least among her people, so that the hidden grace of her Son could be acknowledged by the hidden life of the unborn John the Baptist. Not by appearance, not in a way that could be seen, but from the heart, hidden from view except for those ready to receive, God revealed his presence in our world.
It is all well and good to notice all of this, but what is its point, its meaning for us? I think it is this: to acknowledge the story of God’s coming into our world as one of us, we need to recognise all the ‘us’ in the story are the wrong kind of people. I don’t mean they were bad people. They are ‘wrong’ – that is, Mary, Elizabeth, John, and in the past, David and the little tribe of Judah, are wrong – in the sense that they all come from among the least, and are not the kind of people the world would normally expect to carry the weight of such a story.
God chose for his kingdom not the important or recognisable, or those from the centre. God chose the least, and the least noticeable path for himself, to enter into human history – a baby from the backwaters, who would grow up to spend his time with the lowly, the least, the sinner, the needy – the wrong kind – and who would die an ignominiously wrong kind of death that was a saving act for all. God took a different kind of path to bring us his life; he walked the back streets and the by-ways. And God opened the door to his kingdom, first and foremost, to the least. God does not measure by appearance, but by the heart.
May our hearts expand to welcome him this Christmas.
Fiona Basile17 December 2021
Melbourne Catholic15 December 2021