In Our Camp

There is perhaps no more appropriate point in the Church year to revel in the ordinary things of life than on this great Feast of the Incarnation. And so, at a party I was recently attending, I found myself musing on a slogan emblazoned on a T-shirt that someone was wearing. Its words of wisdom were not immediately theological; they were more inspirational, at least to the Boy Scout or avid camper. The words of wisdom offered by this T-shirt slogan were that “home is wherever I can pitch my tent.”

Now, if I had seen this slogan in any other context and at any other time of year, it would most likely have escaped my attention. But reflecting on this seemingly nondescript statement, it dawned on me that for some in the room in which I was standing, houses of brick, mortar, and wood were most likely fraught with anxiety and stress. I wondered how many people in that room were presently concerned about whether there was enough heat in their houses or whether they would lose their homes. And I realized that in this particular setting, a T-shirt bearing a camping slogan had indeed made a hopeful theological statement, because it had expanded the notion of what a home can be. A home can be wherever one might pitch a tent, for wherever one might pitch a tent, God himself has already pitched a tent there.

And so, John tells us in the climax of the Prologue to his Gospel. The eternal Word existing with God and as God when all things came into being through him at the dawn of creation—this Word made flesh in Christ lived among us for a short lifetime, dwelling with the human race, breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, leaving real human footprints in the dust of the Middle East. This Word made flesh tabernacled among us. This Word pitched his tent in our camp.

Of course, the camp was at first a localized one, a camp in the little town of Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph took up temporary residence, pitching their tent in a stable or cave, whichever it was, we may never know. This Holy Family’s makeshift camp was nearly a hundred miles from their more permanent camp, the home they had established in Nazareth. But on that night of our Savior’s birth, home was not in Nazareth. Home was temporarily in Bethlehem, because that’s where Mary and Joseph had pitched their tent, so they could be counted in the census in the town of Joseph’s lineage.

And Matthew the evangelist tells us that after God was born into human time and space and tested his lungs in the incipient cries of a babe, Mary and Joseph pitched their tent elsewhere, far away in Egypt, as they fled the wrath of Herod and sought to protect the life of their newborn son. In many ways, the wanderings of Jesus’s earliest days would foreshadow his later life. In the intense fervor of his earthly ministry in Galilee and beyond, Jesus pitched his tent in many, many camps.

And there were times, we know, when our Lord himself had to redefine what home was. Home wasn’t always what one might expect. A world darkened by human sin could not always contain the everlasting Light. Yes, even in his hometown of Nazareth, our Lord faced rejection when its citizens were unable to receive his prophetic words and were incapable of welcoming him as God’s Messiah. So, the Son of God could only shake the Palestinian dust from his sandals and move on and pitch his tent in other locations.

In a human body, which knew all the trials of earthly loss and undoubtedly experienced the aches of strained sinews from long days of walking—in this human body, God dwelled as close to humankind as was humanly possible in order to bring us salvation. In this human body that also bore in equal measure the divine glory, God pitched his tent in our camp. And this tent was more than a pillar of cloud or of fire accompanying the Israelites in their wilderness journey. This tent was God with us, Emmanuel, in human flesh and blood.

But I imagine that in those strange and mysterious days following our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension, it must have felt to many like the tent that had been pitched in our camp was a bygone memory. To those who had known and loved Jesus, to those who had embraced him as a friend, to those who had grasped his rough hands worn by a carpenter’s work, Jesus’s seeming disappearance from the earth must have been a devastating blow. I suppose it was only natural that the human mind, in its limited capacity, would seek to make God too small by assuming that God’s earthly tent could only last for the duration of his Son’s lifetime.

But “our God, heav’n cannot hold him/Nor earth sustain.”[1] The divine glory shining in the life of Christ, the glory that pitched its tent in Nazareth and Bethlehem, still sets up camp hour by hour, minute by minute, and second by second in our lives. The Incarnation is not a closed chapter in a history book. God has pitched his tent and continues to pitch his tent among us until he comes again in glory. Because God has come as close to humankind as possible, he is forever setting up camp in our lives, no matter where we may be. For home is wherever we can pitch our tents, and wherever we pitch our tents, God has already beat us to it and established a home for us.

There is no human home too lonely or darkened by tragedy and despair in which God has not already set up camp. There is no seedy district of town, no blood-soaked battleground, no tsunami-wracked coast, no graffiti-riddled school playground, and no bleak prison cell in which God has not already pitched his tent and in which God does not still pitch his tent. For God has promised not to leave us comfortless, and this is the meaning of today’s great Feast. The Incarnation is not simply about the birth of a baby boy in the little town of Bethlehem. It is also about the birth of this baby into our hearts, every second of every day in every corner of the world. God is constantly on the move, and wherever we set up camp, God has already pitched his tent there and prepared for us a home.

In his great subversion of human pride and control, God took the world by surprise in the Incarnation. By pitching his tent in every camp on this earth, God was determined to re-order this creation back into relationship with him, so that “nothing could get between us and his love,” to quote words from last week’s Advent pageant.[2] The revelation of God’s greatness was inaugurated by becoming localized in human space and time so that ultimately no space and time could hold him hostage.

If only the feeble human mind could see this. If only the human mind could see that there is indeed enough of God for everyone and that no one has a monopoly on God. There is enough love for everyone because God pitches his tents in places across the world, no matter how disparate the locations and how wide the distances between them. And so there is no need for what a seminary professor of mine called the original fear, the fear that there is never enough. Because of the Incarnation, there is always enough in God’s gracious providence.

In one modern Bible translation, the apex of John’s Prologue is translated as “[t]he Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”[3] But God didn’t just move into gated communities or subdivisions with manicured lawns. God moved into the neighborhoods neglected by broken city governments, where gunshots are routinely heard. God moved into the unheated homes on the brink of foreclosure. God moved into the traveling camps of refugees fleeing oppressive governments. For home can be wherever you might pitch your tent, and wherever that might be, God has already pitched his tent there.

And so we can rightly say, “Blessed, praised, worshiped, hallowed, and adored be our Lord Jesus Christ on his throne of glory in heaven, in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.” And so, too, we can say, “Blessed, praised, worshiped, hallowed, and adored be our Lord Jesus Christ in his tents over grates in city sidewalks.” Blessed, praised, worshiped, hallowed, and adored be our Lord Jesus Christ in his tents set up among those whose pillow is a dirt floor. Blessed, praised, worshiped, hallowed, and adored be Christ in all the tabernacles of the world and in the camps of all people who find their true homes where God has already pitched his tent.

[1] Christina Rossetti, “In the bleak midwinter”

[2] Adapted from Simone Graham, An Unexpected Christmas.

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
25 December 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 25, 2018 .