Ours is a God who also cherishes our perishable bodies — broken hearts and flesh in all its fleshiness and troubled minds… just as much as our precious, imperfect souls in need of redemption.
That same love extends well beyond the human — all the way to the rest of creation: the fragile flowers of the field and polluted rivers, rough jagged cliffs and the finite fossil fuels below them, the clear blue skies and smoggy air…all the way to holes in the ozone.
I read recently — though I can’t remember where — a complaint that St. Frances and his creche’ redirected the Christian religion. Refocused the faith from the ethereal to the material.
The author’s argument was that Frances’ grabbed people’s religious imaginations and catapulted the incarnation ahead of the the crucifixion and resurrection as the focus around which the faith finds meaning. With his compelling pastoral re-enactment of Jesus’ birth, Francis, the article alleged, hijacked the mystical Eastern religion that Christianity was, and left us with something worldly, almost carnal — or at least more immediate, tangible and pragmatic.
Instead of centering around God’s salvific acts at the cross and empty tomb, the author frets, Francis spun the faith decidedly towards the “this-worldly,” even “earthy.” In place of pointing the faithful to a cosmic, ontological change God effected, the predominance of the incarnation led believers towards God’s abiding concern for our daily lives. God identified with and by our mortal existence! Calling our attention from heaven and eternity, Christianity became more of a “God is here with us in the muck” sort of faith.
The author acknowledged Christianity has become more responsive to the struggles of this life and the sorrows of our world. But then complained that Francis’ “sentimentalization” of the manger scene was responsible for the mass secularization in the West and the commercialization of Christmas… and who knows what else! The article blamed Francis and his Christmas farm stand for every gripe its author had… all the way to the division of church and state, the prohibition again prayer in school, even flag burning! The after-affects of Francis’ innovation were, in this analysis, far-reaching and dire!
Francis certainly made a contribution to the development of western Christian theology and practice, but just one among many. His holy family nesting among the farm animals may provide a great picture postcard for God being closer at hand. But the development of western Christian tradition had to do with much bigger cultural shifts — enlightenment humanism; science and technology; the rise of the nation state, democracy and literacy rates; changing modes of production and the emergence of consumer – industrial economies, to name just a few.
Exaggerated as it may have been, the article got me thinking. Everyone loves the creche’. And I hope we’re pretty appreciative a faith that tackles our real world and the content of our lives before death too. Our Christianity still reaches for what happens after this life, but insists on making this world equally important.
John’s Gospel (long before Francis!) begins with the incarnation. He doesn’t include one detail of the humbling, unsophisticated, even undignified scene of Christ’s birth. Instead, John just says it: “The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.”
Is the Evangelist’s poetry meant to disguise the crudeness of God’s tack? This isn’t shooting star cosmic; it’s unwashed, back alley local. No choruses of angels filling the night sky (that’s Luke’s sideshow for some dirty, exhausted and bewildered shepherds). John doesn’t even really include the poor, frightened young women — displaced, struggling, hurting — as she gives birth.
And God’s not showing up in the spotlight at the center of the world or at some great seat of power. God tried that with Moses, and ended up having to lead the people out of slavery! This time God is sneaking into our world in the person of a peasant child of colonized people on the outskirts of empire. Ok, Wise Ones arrive with some kingly gifts to receive him, but his people received him not. And John’s and Francis’ poetic flourishes aside, it’s mostly rough homespun and less than sterile straw, the sights, sounds and smells of a barn.
Christianity, at least in the incarnation we know, never opts for heaven over earth. It never denies the reality and significance of our daily lives, in all their material, fleshy, earth-bound detail. In fact, “God so loved the world…”
All your details matter. The housing you can’t find. When you are out of work. Or when your family isn’t working out like you expected. The trip you aren’t looking forward to. Trying to figure out how to raise a child you’re really not ready for. Those unexpected, even unwanted Christmas visitors. That person who’s got an ax to grind against you. The bills you cannot figure out how you are going to pay.
It all matters to God. Right alongside of typhoons in the Philippines and school massacres in Connecticut.
God told Moses to take off his shoes, because the ground where he stood was holy. But God tells us in Christ that all ground is holy– God, not only made it, but also walked, slept, ate, worked and died on it.
Beloved, if we are going to be saved anywhere, it will be right here. Not in some phantasmal, spiritually-pure afterlife. But in the midst of our compromised, imperfect, complicated lives.
And what is it that can be saved? Not a diaphanous, effervescent, freed from achy, tired bodies and all other limitations of the material world version of you. We’re not going to get some uncompromised reflection of ourselves.
Instead, redemption is arriving finally at who we really are — real bodies in sync with our psyches and our souls, our true selves and all their complex relationships… finally coming together, really together, inside and out. And in a redeemed city that comes down from heaven to supplant all the brokenness and trouble we know in our neighborhood (which God already so loves).
Don’t try to be more spiritual than God. This Christmas, instead, try to be in the world as much as God came to be.
See you in church, (and remember: with all the guests at church at Christmastime, we need all of you to help out with hosting and welcoming!)
*The title of this week’s E-pistle is an adaptation of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.“