There’s a phrase a sports player often hears when he or she is encouraged or challenged to really be present to the contest or game at hand: “You’ve got to have some skin in the game.” Though coming from the world of sports, the maxim is applicable to many things and circumstances in life. It means that one just can’t show up aimlessly to something…to life. One must be fully present to it, ready, if necessary, to leave some of their flesh behind to show that they indeed have been there. The poet Mary Oliver notes this idea in her poem “When Death Comes.” She writes: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms./ When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/ if I have made of my life something particular, and real./ I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,/ or full of argument./ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” (Mary Oliver, Devotions, 285-86.)
Another poet—because poets have insights into these realities—the psalmist says it this way in psalm 57: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake, my soul, awake, lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn” (Psalm 57:8-9). This poet is so aware of the intimations of immortality dancing around that he or she has the audacity, daring and temerity to seek to be a co-agent of creation…to dare to do that which God does…call forth the sun and the dawning of the day. Talk about having some skin in the game.
Our God does have skin in the game, to utilize the metaphor and to expand it. It’s called the incarnation, the enfleshment, and it is entirely what the feast of Christmas is about. God became a human being; he took on our flesh; he’s got skin in the game of the human race.
There’s a story told about a young girl—let’s call her Michele—who was now old enough and trying to be brave enough to sleep in her own room. But, one night she cries out in panic for her parents after a bad dream. Her mommy comes in to soothe and comfort the frightened girl, whose fear quickly subsides as she clings to mommy’s arms and chest—very physical stuff that human body is. When Michele protests that she doesn’t want her mommy to leave her alone, the faith-filled woman gently answers, “Honey, you’re not alone. God is here with you.” Little Michele wisely retorts, “I know God is here with me, but I want and I need him to have some skin.” That’s the incarnation.
You and I need some skin, because we aren’t phantasms or bodyless beings floating around. We aren’t angels. We are in the flesh—incarnated. And our God does have skin in the game, so much so that he took on human flesh and became one of us. The long list of names read in the genealogy that begins the gospel of Matthew shows that God in Jesus of Nazareth has a history, a lineage, a past. Some of the names have stories of great daring and nobility of soul (a lot of magnanimity) that we know much about; equally some of those names have stories of infidelity and depravity and baseness of soul (a lot of pusillanimity) that we know about too. Many of the names have stories that we know nothing about. We don’t know who they are. That is particularly true for the third and last section of Matthew’s genealogy. And it’s that third and last part of the genealogy that leads most proximately to “Jesus who is called the Christ.”
All of those seemingly very ordinary human beings who put their skin into the game of life would lead to the coming of the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us, God who is close, God in the flesh, God who has some skin. These so-called ordinary ones, much like you and like me, are all in the genealogy that leads to Jesus the Christ. But the ordinary becomes charged with the extraordinary, and that’s the mystery of the Incarnation—God taking on flesh, God having skin… human skin.
Sr. Genevieve Glen in her book Sauntering Through Scripture notes this about what happens when God encounters the ordinary. She writes: “Be warned. Mary was minding her own business on a dusty village afternoon when the angel showed up, or so we can imagine (Luke 1:26-38). Joseph was brooding about a marriage contract and divorce when the angel interrupted his sleep (Matt 1:18-24). Jesus was born in an ordinary stable and laid in an ordinary manger, with no one troubled except a handful of unimportant [ordinary] shepherds in a nearby field (Luke 2:1-14). Jesus comes to us even now in ordinary human words printed on a page or spoken from the ambo. He even comes in disguise as something down to earth as what looks like bread and wine, even though we try to fancy them up a bit for the purpose. The most dangerous place in the world is the ordinary when God gets hold of it. And God has” (Genevieve Glen, Sauntering Through Scripture, 31-32). An ancient homily by a father of the church puts it this way: “[God] chose surroundings that were poor and simple, so ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, so that people would know that it was the Godhead alone that changed the world” (Theodotus of Ancyra, Homily 1 on the Nativity of the Lord, in Give Us This Day 8/12, December 2018, pg. 263).
Some human beings noticed, but most did not. They went on with their busy ordinary lives. But as God entered that ordinariness and charged it with his grandeur, to paraphrase my favorite poet the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, others would begin to notice also and see that God has skin in this game of the human race. Some of the most ordinary creatures noticed it first—the animals—and why, according to long tradition we physically represent this ordinary event that has been suffused with the extraordinary in our simple yet profound manger scenes with all sorts of animals, including cats for the first time this year. One of the most beautiful Christmas texts, set to music down through the generations in varying styles, is one that basks in the beauty of simply seeing the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, God taking flesh, being born and lying in the animals’ feeding trough—the manger. O Magnum mysterium, the first words of the poem in Latin—because again poets and animals get these things—the text goes like this: “O great mystery and wondrous sacrament that the animals might see the new born Lord, lying in a manger. O Blessed Virgin, whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!” That’s it—Woman, pregnancy, womb, birth, dwelling for animals, feed box for animals, the animals themselves. So ordinary and so extraordinary! So incarnational and so sacramental! One would hardly notice it, if one was not looking for it.
Theodotus of Ancyra again: “[God] chose surroundings that were poor and simple, so ordinary as to be almost unnoticed, so that people would know that it was the Godhead alone that changed the world.” God put skin in the game of the human race—our skin, our flesh, our blood, our humanity. Let’s you and I put skin in the game that God himself has become a part of. Let’s join the animals at the manger, peer over the crib, and see, truly see, one who took the world into his arms, made of his life something particular and real, didn’t find himself always sighing and frightened, full of argument, one who didn’t end up simply having visited this world. And let’s do the same.
A final poet, because again poets and animals get these things, Christina Rossetti, in the final verse of her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” says it best: “What can I give Him, poor as I am?/ If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;/ If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him; give my heart.” Merry Christmas!