Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.
This has been a good Christmas for my family. All of us have remained healthy and Covid free thus far. All of us are retired or able to work from home and so spared from the anxiety faced by so many who are either out of work or working under conditions that expose them daily to infection. Though we have remained separated from one another, we are in touch by way of Facetime, Zoom and constant texts. Still, I miss having bodily contact. Sure, I can tell stories and joke with my grandkids during video chats. But that is no substitute for their warm bodies snuggling up to me as I read to them from an old fashioned book. Or, as the poet Marion Strobel says, “singing on my beast/ warm as a colored light,/ your head is at rest.”
Christmas this year has made me painfully aware of how bodily our faith is. No one knew this as well as Martin Luther. One story has it that, when Luther sat down to debate the theology of the Lord’s Supper with fellow reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, he wrote in chalk on the table in front of him “this is my body.” So determined was Luther not to betray this central affirmation: the bread and wine in the Lord’s supper does not merely symbolize but is the Body and blood of Christ. So, too, when Saint Paul refers to the church as the “Body of Christ,” he is not speaking metaphorically. For Paul, the church, with all its faults, is the resurrected Christ in and for the world.
There is no spirit/body dualism in biblical Christianity. While we might distinguish between body and spirit or soul and body, the two can never be separated. Just as a body without a soul is only a corpse, so, too, a soul without a body is a mere phantom. We confess in our creeds, not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God raises the body, soul and whatever other part of us there might be from death. Salvation through Jesus Christ is not a purely spiritual measure designed to “save souls.” It is a life and death struggle for the whole cosmos in which Jesus invites us to participate here and now in our present bodily existence, assuring us that the outcome will be a new creation in which we will also participate bodily-whatever that might mean.
Aside from the gospel witnesses, I don’t think there is a narrative better illustrating the mystery of Incarnation than one particular incident related by author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, in his book, Night. This short book is an autobiographical account of his incarceration at the Buna concentration camp. There Wiesel relates a story about the gruesome hanging of a young boy by the SS guards. He and all the other prisoners were marched out into the commons to witness this event. As the child hung, struggling for some time in the noose, someone near Wiesel kept muttering, “Where is God?” Wiesel tells of how a voice within him answered, “Where is He? Here he is-he is hanging here on the gallows.” Wiesel, Elie, Night, (c. 1958 by Les Editions De Minuit; pub. by The Hearst Corporation, New York, NY) p. 74-76. Though not a Christian, Elie Wiesel comes much closer to understanding incarnational theology than a good many of us who are!
The Incarnation, it must be understood, was not God’s temporary foray into human affairs. The Word both became and continues to be flesh. The stench of God’s flesh rises up from the ovens of Auschwitz; it is scarred by the lash of the whip; it is starved and frozen just across our southern border; it struggles for one last breath under the knee of a cop; it fights for one more moment of life on a ventilator. When John tells us that the Word became flesh, he is telling us that the glory and grace of God cannot be seen apart from the crucified Jesus who, even when raised from the dead, still bears the scars of torture. God cannot be blasphemed by the desecration of any temple save the temple of the human body, the flesh made sacred by God’s indwelling.
It should further be understood that the Incarnation was not an unpleasant duty that the Word underwent as a result of our sinfulness. According to John’s gospel, the Word’s becoming flesh was God’s intent from the beginning. The cross was the price God paid for following through with that intent, notwithstanding our sinfulness. In Jesus, God becomes human-more human than any of us have ever been. In so doing, God exposes both God’s dogged determination to “form the mind of Christ” within the human family and the depth of human resistance to God’s merciful intent.
This second Sunday of Christmas is a good time to double down on the miracle of the Incarnation. With the manger set back up in the attic, the Christmas tree out on the curb and the toys broken, out of batteries or their novelty spent, we are no longer competing with the sentimental overtones of the holiday season. With Santa in the rear view mirror and some very dark and frightening months ahead, we could use a Christmas story that enters into our anxious and stormy lives-and stays there. That good news is Emmanuel, God with us. Not just for the holidays, but always.
Here is the poem by Marion Strobel quoted above.
Often, on Christmas,
I listen to a chant
Float from a colored window
Often, on Christmas,
I wait until a glow
From a colored pane of glass
Slides across the snow.
Yet though I hear songs,
And listen from without,
I never quite know what
Christmas is about.
In never quite know-
Till, singing on my breast
And warm as a colored light,
Your head is at rest.
Source: Poetry Vol. XXV, No. 111 (December 1924). Marion Strobel (1895-1967) was a poet, fiction, writer, critic and editor. In 1922 she married dermatologist James Herbert Mitchell and settled with him in Chicago. The couple had two daughters, including abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell. Strobel was an associate editor of Poetry from 1920 to 1925 and from 1940-1949. She published two collections of poetry in the 1920s and published five novels in the 1930s and 1940s. Strobel established the Harriet Monroe Poetry Prize in memory of the Poetry founder in 1936. You can read more about Marion Strobel at the Poetry Foundation website.