Of all the painful, joyful, amazing tests I have encountered while working in the developing world, the most heartbreaking, and faith shaping, was the moment I realized what the Incarnation truly meant.
At some point during my years in the Dominican Republic, I realized that I had fallen in love with the little community of Rio San Juan. We moved to the DR to start a youth outreach center. The focus of the ministry was to the area’s “street kid” population; a rag-tag bunch of shoe shine boys, who, while not orphans, exactly, were largely uncared for and vulnerable to all kinds of poverty-related issues and exploitation. I loved the ministry, the place and the people that I found myself surrounded with. I truly started to feel loved in return, and like I had been accepted by the back streets of the barrios that my wife and I walked through every day. It was a good feeling. I had worked as hard as I could, to make myself part of the community and try to fit in; living as much like my neighbors as I thought possible at the time.
But then, the realization hit me. It wasn’t enough. I may have been accepted, but I was not “one of them”, and never would be. They knew it. I knew it. They had very few options; even the richer among them, and I, had many. Sure, there were some in the area who probably earned great salaries, even by American standards, but I had something much more powerful; the ultimate power of the American identity. The passport. The connections. The education. Even if I lived on as little money as possible; moved to a palm-wood shack; ate only what they ate; spent only what they spent; traveled only how they traveled; treated medical problems only how they could treat them; none of that would really change how they saw me. The fact remained that I would still be able to make one phone call back to the States and lift myself out of whatever challenge I chose. What’s more, I started to understand that the act of living exactly like they did would actually be offensive to them, as they lived out of necessity and struggle...I would only be "slumming"; condescending; pretending for a time to be just like them - as though this were some reality TV show or personal machismo challenge. As much as I tried to clothe myself in poverty, the undeniable glint of my First World identity would be like a neon sign, pointing me out.
No, I had been accepted, but not as one of them. I didn't belong, I was an anomaly, an oddity that they had become used to, but never could be just as they were.
So what about Jesus? He was Immanuel; “God among us”, right? He could have called ten thousand angels at any time, right? He looked like just us, but had the special power to heal and prophesy and raise up from the dead, right? In the light of my little ragamuffin friends in Rio San Juan, my previous understandings of God-as-Jesus didn’t make any sense anymore. Is the Gospel really a story of Jesus walking among us, filled with Heavenly power and supernatural knowledge, yet still holding tight to his heavenly passport? The idea was now inconceivable and offensive to me. Jesus as an interloper? Jesus with an ace up his sleeve? Jesus as divine condescension? Nope. Not worth praying to.
Thinking about these lines finally brought me to Philippians 2, arguably one of earliest testimonies (and songs) about Jesus that we have. It states that Jesus, instead of just pretending to be like us; being God in a skin-suit, he denied his divinity, rejected his passport, if you will. He walked, without a parachute, without a safety wire, through this life, depending solely on the Father, just like we should have been doing all along. Thinking about the Incarnation, G.K. Chesterton, in his book Beautiful Outlaw, refers to Jesus as even “more human than humanity”. Jesus points to God at every turn; it was God that healed the people. It was God that did the miracles. It was God that gave the message. Whatever was special about Jesus as he walked through the dusty streets of Palestine had nothing to do with his divine "genetics", or the afterglow from an eternity with the Father, but from his complete and total submission of his right to Godhood. God, as Jesus, showed up on the scene, completely divorced from the trappings of his heavenly to be on the same level as us, his Bride, for whose love he sacrificed everything - even his identity as God. He lived like we did. Died like we did. And, as the first-fruit of the Kingdom that he had been sent to inaugurate, he was raised- just like we will be raised. It’s for this humility and total submission to the Father, even though he had every right to flash a heavenly passport and get out of Dodge, he was exalted above all things, to the glory of God.
My love for Rio San Juan wasn't like that. I had no plans to give away my country, my friends, my family, my history and identity and future in order to be as intimately connected with that little community as Jesus was with us. That realization still hurts sometimes, truthfully. I could, instead of writing this from a nice desk in Green Hills, be there right now; sitting on a street corner with my street boys, drinking 10 peso water out of a plastic bag. I miss it terribly. I really don’t know how I feel about all that; guilty to have left it behind? Proud to have done what I did? Probably all of the above. But, to think about it is to consider the weight of my own identity on my life and what it might mean to love so deeply that I, like Jesus, could release it; abandon it; deny it; consider it nothing.
Thank you, Jesus, for loving me more than your passport.