Most religions are trying to answer the big questions. Who am I? What are we here for? The common malady of humanity is that unless (as the saying goes) we have been given eyes to see, we won’t see things happen that prove there is more than the physical world we see around us. That leaves religions in a funny position. They are helped by explaining why beauty, order, and goodness exist at all, but they are also critically challenged by the presence of evil, chaos, and pain in the world. Various religions answer these questions differently. Some say we hold on for a hope in the afterlife – a perfect place that (if we are good enough) we can access. Other religions encourage us to close our eyes and rid ourselves of desire in order to achieve internal freedom. (I’ve not named religious names purposefully because there are strands of Christianity that sound troublingly like the caricatures I’ve penned above.)
When most of the various religions and spiritual answers offer us the chance to escape (maybe not here and now, but in the future… maybe not in reality, but into our minds, emotions, and the realm of existential experience) why then, on Christmas day, do we believe as we do? Why, in our modern age, do we celebrate the intellectually embarrassing story about God putting on flesh through an impromptu birth of a supposed virgin?
Christianity, at its core, does not offer us escape; it invites us to inhabit… specifically, to inhabit our bodies, our neighbourhoods, our world. We are invited to inhabit because the second person of the Godhead joined himself to flesh in the womb of a virgin and incarnated. Incarnation is a word that seems technical and theological, but in its original context it was almost crass and certainly never used for the divine. The divine is far above, beyond reach and reproach: Incarnate literally means, “God put on meat”. The God who is Holy and Other… who existed before all that was created has, as Philippians states it, “humbled himself”. It’s a fitting phrase considering the root of the word “humble” is humus, meaning dirt or soil.
That is the fantastical and far out assertion we are celebrating this Christmas day… that the God of the Universe, who created all things and created them good, doesn’t invite us to escape to a higher plane… but to get back in the bodies he has given us, to live in the world he has given us. And, He’s leading the way! He puts on the very soil that was good, yet wounded, damaged, and broken by that original rebellion and relinquishment of the high call of bearing the image of God. This is the beginning of our redemption and reconciliation… our return to God… our at-one-ment. The divide created by the original rebellion (and ratified by every other human) has been bridged by this God in the flesh, this God in the neighbourhood. If our fallenness is a disease, the incarnation is the beginning of the cure; it moved through humanity by sudden and radical inclusion in God’s very Son when He put on flesh. We normally relate to Jesus’ actions on the cross as the place of our redemption, and while salvation was certainly being secured in that act, so too was it being secured in the act of incarnation.
The God of the universe literally comes down and gets in the dirt with us and subverts all of humanity’s best thoughts and ideas about what God should be like. What does this change? First of all, understanding incarnation teaches us the Holy has come and made His residence in flesh, blood and matter, so now all flesh, blood and matter can become Holy! The early church fathers were gesturing to this when they said, “He has become what we are, so that we may become what he is.” This saying, strange to modern ears, is not announcing that we are becoming gods, but that we are now In God, or as Paul often announces in his letters, we are In Christ.
So, when God becomes human, we suddenly recognise that God in the flesh, had family relationships, siblings, cousins, and community. He had a profession, a language, a culture. He got tired, hungry, and angry. Suddenly, all of our human locations and experiences are not things to push aside while we wait for our heavenly home, these are the places and people where holiness can happen. As I said in the beginning, much of our spirituality is fixated on the idea of transcending the realities of our earthly existence, but the celebration of Christmas shows us God does not primarily invite us to transcend, but to transfigure.
Much like Jesus’ own transfiguration and later resurrected body, we are invited, in the power of the Spirit, to see our ordinary in-meat, soil-based bodies as suddenly and graciously a participation in the heavenly and divine. Maybe an enthusiastic paraphrase of John’s wonderful opening to the gospel might be, ‘God has moved into our neighbourhood and set up a tent, his body, full of the presence of God, and there is enough room for us all.’