We are obsessed with our bodies. The internet tells us how to make them more attractive. Television lets us know what other people are doing with theirs. There are podcasts dedicated to living, dead, lost, and found bodies. And heaven knows, we are all constantly on the alert for the latest news about what havoc the most recent iteration of the coronavirus will be wreaking not just on our physical bodies but our mental, spiritual, and civic ones as well. Human beings don’t just live in bodies; we live for them. For most of us, the nature of our physical being forms a central role in our overall identity.
I know very few people who are immune to this. Even the most spiritually focused among us will find their concentration shifts back to the physical when severe illness arrives. Society conspires in numerous ways to make it difficult to resist the notion that our bodies are ourselves, leading to increasing mental health issues like anorexia and anxiety. Economic inequities create food deserts, which prevent poorer people from accessing nutritious foods, leading to avoidable health problems like obesity and diabetes. Most disturbingly, we use our bodies as markers to separate ourselves from one another, even though scripture repeatedly tells us we are all made in God’s image. Beyond the obvious and deeply embedded divider of race, we also use physical cues to determine who is worthy of our time and attention – who smells nice, is wearing the right thing, or has a discernably “gender appropriate” appearance. Even those of us who try hard to think in more loving and enlightened ways are often bound by the reactions of our physical selves; we are made deeply anxious by physical difference and react to it almost reflexively. Despite our aspirations to be creatures of intellect, we often find ourselves reduced to our component parts of nerves, muscles, and impulse.
A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon in which I asked listeners to go home and figure out why we celebrate Christmas. About a week later I gave a pop quiz to our Wednesday Bible Study to see if they’d come up with any answers. This is a very smart and theologically educated class, but not one of them jumped in with an answer. I find this common in our day and age. Despite many loud cries that “Jesus is the reason for the season” I find few people that can tell me why they think Christmas is such an important Christian feast. Of course, we are celebrating Jesus’s birth, but why is that theologically significant? It is Good Friday and Easter that form the basis for our belief system because it is Jesus’s sacrificial death and the miracle of his resurrection that have saved us from sin. Obviously, none of that could have happened if he had not been born, but do we really need a whole separate feast to celebrate his birthday?
Church historians would remind us that we didn’t – not for hundreds of years. Christmas is a latecomer to the Christian calendar. It was not celebrated by the early Christians and, yes, it is completely true that most of what we think of as “Christmas traditions” were “borrowed” from already-existing pagan celebrations. So it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Christmas might have been developed as one big Christian publicity stunt.
Except for tonight’s scripture texts. The words of the gospel of John that we heard tonight have thrilled me since I was a child, although it has taken me many years to begin to understand them. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Completely unlike the other three Christmas gospels, and written at least a hundred years after them, John’s gospel does not relay the story of Jesus’s birth, but instead explains why it is critically important – and why Christmas most certainly deserves its own feast.
Our holy scriptures tell us that we are not the first humans to become focused on our physical bodies at the cost of all else. It’s probably no coincidence that the first separation between God and humanity occurred when human beings realized that they had physical bodies – and quickly became ashamed of them. We then spent the next millennia using those bodies to hurt one another, ultimately leading to destruction, death, and, for the people of Israel, exile and separation from God and one another. Over and over again God sought reconciliation with creation, sending prophets, faithful leaders, and humble servants to offer guidance that would lead us into loving relationship with God and one another. Over and over again creation rejected God’s overtures, distorting God’s word and focusing on our physical lives in this world rather than the holiness available to us in God’s beloved community. To put it in physical terms: God must have been tearing her hair out.
Even when God’s people have been able to rise above their physical circumstances to put their faith in God – to believe that God is present to them, they are still only able to see God as they see themselves – in physical terms, as a body. In our Hebrew scripture, Isaiah tells the exiled Jews that God will come to this world and bare his holy arm to save them. Similarly, the psalmist praises God’s triumph through use of “his right hand and holy arm” which have “won for himself the victory.” Recognizing this, God decides to speak to creation in the only way we seem to understand. God chooses to take on flesh Godself - to become a body just like one of us; to live in a certain time and a certain place – just like one of us; to save us from ourselves from among ourselves.
This is an astounding thing – and it is this that tonight’s gospel tries to explain. In the beginning there was nothing – nothing but God and God’s word, what theologians call the Logos. Think of this as the creative force of God, the part through whom light and life came into being and continue to shine. Now, imagine that God willingly tears that pure, lightness from Godself and allows it to be reformed as a human being – to be born in pain, mucus, blood, and out of darkness as we all are - to enter a world that is filled with terrors like disease, violence, hatred, greed, and dishonesty in the most vulnerable form possible – a baby- and with only a teenage girl and a confused tradesperson to protect it.
That much we get from the other gospels – the ones that tell the story of Jesus’s birth. And those stories might also help us begin to grasp the idea that God rejects society’s idea of what bodies matter and which ones don’t by the fact that it is the shepherds – the dirty, minimally employed, migrant shepherds, who get first crack at worshipping our savior. But what John tells us that our other Christmas gospels fail to convey is that not only did God humble, – debase- himself to become one of us, and do it by joining us in a body that our society would look down on- he did it not just to know our lives or risk our deaths but to share the life-giving, light-bringing, creative force of all life itself with us.
By becoming flesh Jesus removed our need to be obsessed with our bodies because he, in any form, is a reflection of God’s glory, reminding us that we are the same. Christmas is important because it is the story of God breaking her body to take away our focus on our bodies and show us what it really means to be made and to live as the image of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. May we become obsessed with that truth and may it fill us with light, and life, and grace. AMEN.