Going about the business of my days, most of which are filled with very small things that don't deserve much thanks, I can't help but wonder how much obscurity is the real way to joy. I’ve been sitting on Philippians 2 this week, letting it wash over my days again and again, and in many ways it seems the perfect companion to reading the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. The more I step into the Advent stories, the more I try to let them shape my understanding of this life, the more I’m struck by how full of humility the act of God becoming human truly was, and how humble our own journey should be. Immanuel means “God with us” but I wonder if it could also mean “A Thankless Job.”
The following poem struck me as helpful mediation piece alongside both Philippians 2 and Luke 2. It puts flesh on the familiar story with stark, simple pictures that slice through any pretensions that this was anything but a humbling reality. I’ve re-read it several times.
God tries on skin
Once, he stretched skin over spirit
like a rubber glove
aligning trinity with bone,
twining through veins
until deity square-knotted flesh.
In a whirlwind spin
he shrank to the size of a zygote,
bobbed in a womb warm as Galilee’s shore.
In the dark,
he brushed up on Hebrew,
practiced his crawl.
After months scrunched in a circle,
he burst through his cellophane sac,
bloodied the teen legs
spread on the straw.
In his first breath
he inhaled the sweat
of Romans casting lots,
sniffed the wine mixed with gall.
~Marjorie Maddox Phifer
When I think of the humble posture Jesus willingly took not just in the act of becoming one of us, but in the form of his whole life, it's hard not to see how most of the time, we do the exact opposite. We clamor for attention, for recognition, sometimes disguising it in the more palatable version of an excessive need to be thanked. We’ve become a culture obsessed with saying thankyou. We can’t do a task without thanking every last person involved. We constantly tell our children “Say thank you! Say thank you! Say thank you!”, feeling we’ve failed if we can’t teach them at least this one thing. We feel badly if we aren’t thanked, or if no one notices our efforts, and we are especially pleased if we are thanked publicly.
I think it’s good and right to thank others. And it feels good to be noticed and appreciated especially when you’ve expended yourself at personal cost and wonder if it ever makes any difference. I know the power a good, sincere, timely thank you note can do for someone feeling beat down and discouraged.
But I also think there is power in the thankless job. There is something of the way of Jesus in it, and the seeds sown in the dark where no one appreciates can often grow to produce fruit we could never have imagined. It’s the paradoxical way of the cross, of the lowly birth in a stable, of a life lived in poor obscurity, of being rejected my men and scorned by the ones that needed saving. The beauty of serving, of giving your life in some way when no one sees or knows the magnitude of your service or your love, is that indeed the Audience of One, the most important one of all, sees all. He doesn't miss a thing.