Incarnation. It’s on my mind because Christmas is coming. I’ve got a few texts for reflection kicking around in my brain today:
God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them
…the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.
Song of Songs 1:16-17
Look at you—so beautiful, my love! Yes, delightful! Yes, our bed is lush and green! The ceilings of our chambers are cedars; our rafters, cypresses.
Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”
Incarnation is one of the most important—and least appreciated—aspects of the Christmas story. The word “incarnation” shares the same root as “carnal.” It literally means “flesh.” The scandal of the incarnation is that God loves flesh and material existence so much that God put on our flesh in order to save and heal us and our broken world.
There is no single Christian attitude toward the body. The theology of the body has covered a wide spectrum of beliefs and metaphors. But it’s safe to say that Christian theology has often spiritualized the body. Many Christians have talked about salvation in terms of a soul becoming free of the body instead of talking about a resurrected or transformed body.
But part of being made in the image of God is being rendered in material and temporal clay. In humanity, God chooses to “get God’s hands dirty.” God has carnal joy in squishing the fertile mud through God’s own fingers. God shares God’s own breath with us in an intimate kiss of life. In the creation of humans in relationship to each other—socially, sexually, politically, religiously—God also shows that we are interdependent, like the rest of God’s material creation. There are no tides without the pull of the moon and no rain without the heat of the sun. In the Song of Songs verse, humans rejoice in their love for each other and see themselves as part of God’s natural world.
We have several theological choices when it comes to talking about the Virgin Birth and what the story means for Christian theology. Some see it as a sex-negative reinforcement of patriarchal theology. Some see it as a feminist declaration of independence and God’s solidarity with the oppressed. Some see it as a radical reframing of “fruitfulness.” Some see it only as a demonstration of God’s power (“Look! God can do magic!”).
I think the incarnation and the Virgin Birth gives us an opportunity to reflect critically on our theology of the body and how it affects the way we live. How does it affect the way we think about justice for the poor? About hunger? About sexuality? About the material conditions of people’s lives? About the baby born in a manger? When we spiritualize the message, we miss out on God’s concern for the material conditions of human existence.
If the incarnation is just a story about the miracle of birth, it is sweet and inspiring, but not redemptive. I believe it is a story about God’s embrace of the whole complex human being, full of contradictions: pain, pleasure, hope, loneliness, sin, grace, and vision. The body matters, and we cannot tell our faith story in such a way that we ignore real bodies.
Here are some quotes for further reflection:
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The soul is part of the body. The mind is part of the body. When folks do physical violence to black people, to black bodies in this country, the soul as we construe it is damaged, too – the mind is damaged, too.”
George MacDonald: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Karl Barth: “Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”
Twice a week (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
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