The Advent of New Birth
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above. John 3:3
The NRSV translation of John 3:3 says that we must be born from above to see the kingdom of heaven. Other translations say that we must be born again. Some translators say it is not a matter of seeing the kingdom of heaven but of entering the kingdom of heaven. Wordsmithing aside, Jesus pointed to a new birth that brings about a higher state of being. John 3:3 is part of a private conversation between Jesus and one of the religious leaders of his day, Nicodemus. The conversation begins with Nicodemus acknowledging that Jesus was sent by God, as witnessed by his ability to do the types of things he could do. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born from above, sometimes rendered as born from within, a line that confused Nicodemus as much as it confuses us today. And yet, I believe being born again is at the heart of one of the most beautiful and profound mysteries of the Christmas story.
Many of us have been cornered by others with the question, “Have you been born again?” The question, usually offered with the sincerest of intentions, carries with it the implied judgement that we are condemned to hell until we have recited whatever magical words they believe must be said before one can be saved. Jesus, however, did not use the born again language as a question or an accusation. Rather, it was offered as a statement of fact – you must be born from above to see the kingdom of heaven. I imagine Jesus offered these words in the same vein as saying that one must learn addition and subtraction before they can balance a checkbook. The one opens the door for the other.
The kingdom of heaven refers to the spiritual realm that underlies, impregnates, and animates everything physical. That realm, or that aspect of life, cannot be seen by our physical eyes. Doing so requires a new birth that opens a different nature of sight, not to replace our earthly vision but to magnify it. Until we have developed this broader and more inclusive vision, we only perceive a tiny portion of the life-reality we experience. The works that Nicodemus and others saw Jesus doing appeared to be signs from God or miracles. Jesus’ response was that once one develops this expanded visual capability one sees the works as a natural part of the greater life. Not as exceptions to the natural flow of life but as self-evident aspects inherent to life itself. We cannot see it because we have not developed the visual capacity to see it. Thus the need to be born anew.
In the Christmas story, as in life in general, we lose sight of the reality that all births are miraculous. On finding she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Mary asks, “How can this be?” How can it be indeed? Is the Holy Spirit any less present in our conception than that of Jesus? I think not. The birth of the Christ-child occurs when we reawaken to the presence of the Spirit residing within us. This is our rebirth, our being born from above, our being born again. In Jesus, the heavenly and earthly realms were joined in one physical being. So, too, in us. Once we claim the space where heaven and earth unite within us our eyes are opened. Most of us need to awaken to that rebirth yearly, weekly, or daily because our normal life-events focus us on earthly activities and away from the spiritual underpinnings of those activities.
We do ourselves and others a confusing disservice by overly sanitizing the Christmas story because new life arises from regular life. Birth from above does not come down the chimney, nor is it born in a perfectly arranged manger scene. We feel compelled to hide the blood and body fluids of birth. We perfume over the strong, pungent odors and cover the crap of the stable with carpet. We romanticize the birth without acknowledging the beautiful pain and messiness through which the birth of Spirit into human form must pass. It is in the chaos of everyday life that the Christ-child is born. It cannot be otherwise because the child is the product of Spirit penetrating earth, the same miracle that birthed us. The birth must occur on the earth with all the glorious unpleasantness that is characteristic of all things of the earth. It is not to be avoided but welcomed, not sanitized but glorified, not hidden but celebrated.
In the midst of the messy, smelly stable-of-our-everyday-life, a child is born; and the child will be called Emmanuel because God is with us.
For a musical meditation on New Life: https://youtu.be/sRaMhl6YX1I
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