I do not think that it is too much of an overstatement to say that of the truths that the Church teaches, the Incarnation (God taking on flesh and human nature), is the most radical and the sticking point for most. Oh, there are other concepts that are difficult: the Trinity, the Resurrection, Heaven, the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, those are all complicated and hard to understand, but the Incarnation is the most radical, the hardest somehow to understand and to accept.
Certainly the Incarnation was the hardest for the peoples of the Ancient Near East to understand: they were used to the plethora of mythic cults, to the Pantheon of the Greco-Roman gods, to the religious foibles of odd groups and cultures, but God becoming flesh? Gods and goddesses might walk around looking like humans, or dallying with them, or deceiving them, but that the gods should become human seemed to them ridiculous: why would one give up omnipotence or power to live a human life? Flesh and matter were base, lower than the spiritual and ethereal.
The Church through the ages has struggled with the same conception of the material as base, and because of that has not been quite comfortable with God’s flesh. Often, in theology and in art, the sense is of an effort to contain and limit the radicalness of Christ’s flesh. Jesus, while grudgingly human, is still other than human: he is too beautiful, or too formal, or too much like a human light bulb. He is not really like us, how could he be? He is human we say with our lips, but our doubt or discomfort is revealed in the images that we make of him or the way that we talk about him.
The long and the short of this discomfort with matter is that we, in our own culture, don’t have a much better relationship with bodies and flesh. Certainly there is little that I can think of in our culture that is more complex, more heavily charged than bodies and flesh. We worship the image of the beautiful body, made present to us in the celluloid of movie starts and super athletes. We live in a culture that idealizes, or at least objectifies the perfect and naked body, and yet few of us are close to the standards we are bombarded with every day. We are a culture enmeshed in some of the strangest interactions with flesh imaginable. Just think about our relationship with food, or with sexuality, or with exercise or with health care. And for all of this obsession with flesh, we are a culture and a people vastly uncomfortable within our own skins.
Is there indeed anything closer to us, and yet more alien than our flesh? Our flesh can seem so natural that we can forget that we live in it, and we can also feel entirely not at home in our own skin, and horribly trapped. And why would God choose that? Why would God choose to suffer flesh, and suffer all that comes with flesh: weakness, sickness, aging and death. Why would God suffer himself to suffer puberty or middle school gym class, for heaven’s sake?
Not only does the Incarnation not make sense, it is as the people in the ancient Near East saw, radically offensive, radically iconoclastic. It is, in many ways the most lunatic, the most offensive of all the claims that the Church makes about Jesus – that God himself lived among us – that the frailty of our bodies and our inability to escape the flesh – was shared by God.
For we are indeed fleshly beings. For all the efforts of our minds to feel removed from flesh, for all the illusions of eternity and survival, all the defenses that we erect to defend us from our frailty, our mortality, our aging, and our raw and latent physicality, all of that is mere illusion. We live now at the whim of a phenomenally complicated system of muscles, blood vessels, bones, and fluids that often surprises not by its occasional failure, but by the fact that more doesn’t go wrong more often.
If you are like me, and feel the strangeness of this flesh that I live in, you might feel the wrongness of God experiencing what we do. It is too base, too vulgar, too intimate that God should feel this bounded and this limitation that we feel.
There is, in the claim of the Incarnation, a radical discomfort, a breathless immediacy, a suffocating closeness. And I, at least, am not sure that I like that closeness! God should be in his heaven, and all well on earth; I would prefer the Divine to remain at a distance, the Holy of Holies to remain veiled: I want God to remain both holy and wholly other. I do not want to think about God knowing the experience of flesh, or eating, or sleeping or being sick.
But if the Word became flesh, no longer is there any distance between the heavens and the earth. If God has become flesh there will be little relief from the immediacy of the experience of God with us in the flesh.
Which means that the Incarnation is radical indeed: the Incarnation is like an avalanche, cascading down the mountain and changing everything in its path. If God has taken flesh, that says something about all flesh. If God has lived a human life, that says a great deal about the seemingly inane parts of human life. If God has walked among us as matter, that says a great deal about the material world around us.
In the Incarnation God glorifies the world. First, God glories in our flesh, because he has taken on our flesh. Then he glories in the things of the world that sustain our flesh: this fish, this bread, this wine, have fed the God of heaven, and thus are blessed. And then he glories in all matter: blessed be the fields that grew the grain he’s eaten, blessed be the waters that held the fish that he has caught, blessed be the air that he has breathed and the dust that he has tramped in, blessed be the stars and planets and the atoms and quarks in their dancing, blessed be all.
The Incarnation makes of our flesh, our lives and of this world a sacrament, for God glories in the material. Matter is not base, for God has grown up here, walked here, slept here, eaten here, laughed here and died here. Whatever our culture might say, whatever some people of faith might say our flesh in not lesser, not incidental, not base. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and made of our flesh and of our world and immeasurable glory.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
Christmas Day 2009
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia