Word made flesh, life of the world, in your incarnation you embraced our poverty: by your Spirit may we share in your riches. Amen.
I have a beat up copy of Plato’s The Phaedrus that I studied in an Advanced Composition and Rhetoric class in college. It’s on my shelf with a few other books from my undergrad days. I remember my professor teaching us that for Plato the purpose of good writing was to set the soul free, to let it soar upwards toward the heavens and put off the weight of this earthly body. The body, says Plato, is like a prison for the soul, like an oyster stuck in a clunky shell. The shell of ours needs to be cast aside so we can truly become who we were meant to be.
What Plato really brings to the front is the dualistic nature of our bodies and souls, informing us that our bodies are bad and our souls are good. The great theologian Augustine buys in to this dualism quite readily with his concept of original sin that has dominated Western theology ever since. The body with its limitations is no good.
As I enter further in to middle age, who am I to disagree? If I’m out on a hike in the White Mountains and I get a blister, the rest of the time on the trail is spent obsessing about that small spot that has literally been rubbed the wrong way. Or, if you’ve ever had a toothache, you know the pain becomes all you can think about until you finally visit the dentist. Someone may want to talk with you about something significant in their life and your attention is stuck on that blasted tooth. Our bodies have the ability to monopolize our thoughts seemingly whenever they want.
And our bodies fail us. I had an issue with my right eye five years ago that has permanently left an impact on my vision. Things just aren’t as clear if I close my left eyelid and look out with my right. That’s not the only issue I have with my forty-something body. There’s that recurring IT band syndrome around my knees, or the ingrown toenail that does a number if I’m not careful. The further I go in life, the more Plato’s sensibility about the soul being the better part of me makes perfect sense. This body is a weight—and at times, especially with all those Christmas cookies, it can be a bit too much weight.
I admit that I thought about the feebleness of my body this Advent as I went to centering prayer. One week I fell asleep during the twenty minutes, and the other weeks my mind raced flitting from one thought to the next so I constantly had to try to recenter on God. I felt that my praying could have been so much better if I could just get my body in line with my heart. Sometimes we may feel that this body of ours isn’t a gift but a curse. That if we really want to be closer to God it’d be a lot easier without the matter that imprisons us. That we could really become godly if we weren’t sorely hindered by this flesh.
Yet St. John the Evangelist wants us to know something quite different. He takes pen to paper to inform us that the Word—that is Jesus, the Christ—not only created all the physical matter around us, he decided to throw his lot in with us as well. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” he writes. “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” God’s glory, seen by us, in the flesh.
It’s odd to me because so many of us want to continue in that vein of Plato, to throw off the body. But then Jesus comes as we celebrate this Feast of the Incarnation—the Feast of God putting on flesh—to show us that we don’t need to get beyond the body to be close to God. In fact, Jesus comes to live among us, in our world, in a body like ours, to show us that God dwells with us always.
Theologian Will Willimon writes, “God came to us not to deliver us from our flesh and all that flesh demands, but to redeem us in our flesh, to ennoble our fleshy, frail, faulty existence by his presence. We don’t need anymore to try vainly to shed ourselves and rise up to him; he descends to us, meets us where we are, as we are. He makes our flesh a sacrament, a means of his grace, an outward and visible sign of his inward and spiritual power.”
Far too often I think we despise our flesh—and possibly ourselves in the process. We wish that we could get close to God but we lose our focus on the important things, or stub a toe and we can think of nothing else. The God of the Universe knows this about us, and in fact created us to be this way. This stuff that we think is just a weakness, God sees as a strength. This body that to the Greek philosophers was completely foolish is our crowning achievement. As we encounter failing eyesight or stretch marks or the loss of hair or other aspects of frailty, God shows us that God loves who we are because this is who God created us to be. And more so, God took on flesh to be with us. We no longer have to ditch this body to get to God, God comes to us in the flesh.
And God wants us to continue to embody the love of Jesus in our world. For too long in my life I thought that if people knew about Jesus’ love that was enough. That even if they were facing physical needs or discomforts, that if their souls were tended to, all would be well. But as I’ve reflected more and more on the Incarnation—the embodiment of the Word in the flesh—I have realized that Jesus came to tend to both our souls and our physical bodies. That it isn’t as if one is good and the other bad, but rather we are to remember the words of Creation when God saw all that had been created—including humankind—and declared it very good.
Let us then feast on the goodness of Christ who came among us these twelve days of Christmastide. Let us laugh and love and eat and partake in many good things. Let us know that the flesh we inhabit is holy and sacred to God through the love of Jesus who took on this flesh himself. And then let us remember that we are called to be Christ’s body—his hands and feet—in a dark and hurting world.
I close with a poem written by Howard Thurman.
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.” Amen! And Merry Christmas!