As we have said throughout Advent, we remember Christ’s first coming in order to prepare for his second coming, when the mystery of the Incarnation that we celebrate in a special way today, when that mystery will be realised in its cosmic fullness, when Christ will be all in all. So, how can we approach this mystery of God taking flesh?
A week or so ago, I was having a discussion with two people about what it means to be a person. I was defending a complicated argument, when one of them asked a pretty obvious but searching question. He said, “I wonder whether your argument has a fundamental blind-spot?” He said, “Don’t you think you are forgetting the body? How can you talk about persons without talking about bodies?”
Later on, the other guy chimed in with his own comment about bodies. He said, “The strange thing about bodies is that you normally only notice them when they’re not doing what you want, or when they’re not working or when they get in the way.” His observation reminded me of something a lecturer had once said, which was: a musician goes wrong if they focus on their hands rather than the music. Somehow a great musician’s body must just flow, must be one with the instrument: he or she must forget his or her body. Although, I remember thinking at the time, that you really have to practice a lot in order to be able to forget.
I think we spot something similar when we drive. When we are driving well, we are not thinking about our feet on the pedals or our hands on the driving wheel. Somehow the car has become an extension of my body. It moves with us. And to the degree that it does, we forget the car and focus on the traffic, or the scenery or the journey. The car has become part of us as we move through the world.
Again, I think you can see something similar with some married couples or with some old friends. There is a ballet-like harmony to their movements or their conversation. Each knows where the other should be, or what is coming next, or what needs to be said in order to set up the great story or the funny joke. Again, though, this is not accidental.
But there does remain the other side. When the body doesn’t function as expected. I remember realising once that, no, I wasn’t bloated. I had just become fat. This had never happened before. I had always just grown upwards. I also remember hearing an interview with Michael Jordan, when he was trying to return to basketball from a brief stint playing baseball. He said that he could still see the gaps in the play, but he could no longer get to them. He no longer had the necessary speed. He said he had a baseball body rather than a basketball body.
Perhaps the whole of this year was something like this. Suddenly, what used to be invisible became visible because things didn’t work like they used to. All the things we never thought about, we suddenly had to think about. Going for a drive. Visiting family and friends. Going to the office. Getting a babysitter. A car that used to run smoothly now seemingly couldn’t get into gear. Our cultural body, our social body, the invisible strands that both bind us together and structure our relationships seemed to get knotted, twisted and so also become strangely visible.
Incarnation then is a strange thing. It can be the invisible pattern of family traditions, or the visible absence when someone who should be here is not. It can be a well-ordered garden, well-furnished living room or the background hum of the rule of la. Or it can be a sense of anxiety that something is not right with my health, or that our society is not working like it should. It can be the most natural thing in the world, like the celebration of the birth of a child. And it can be the thing that stops you in your tracks, like the crucifixion of an innocent man.
And Christ is in all of this. He is the love that is the music of the spheres as well as the still deeper harmony of the Trinity. His truth makes us gasp, both in a startling sunset or a beautiful smile, as well as in the trafficking of women and children for profit, and society’s complicity in this and so many other injustices. He is there in the normal year and in the pandemic year. His is the life that allows us to function and grow, and the shock that signals something new or the need for change.
We must always remember, then, that all of this, all of this, is now his body. Both wounded and glorious. What we celebrate tonight/today is the Incarnation of God. God has taken flesh, and so flesh has become divine. There is no higher truth. If we want to understand the world, we now must understand it as the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Living this way is holiness, living this way is grace.
In this life, it will still feel like the Cross, but there is a higher reality: that of the love that shines out of the face of the Crucified One. The kingdom of God.
And just like a musician or an athlete must train his or her body in order to be able to forget it when needed, we too must constantly remember our primal movement: the Mass, where God does become incarnate. We do this in memory of him, and we must constantly remember where our life comes from, how we are to live, and where we are going.
We must be shocked by God in his little ones who suffer and thirst, so that we can enter more deeply into God’s flesh, into Christ’s humanity and so into the life of God. We must receive all this from the Word of God, so that we can forget ourselves in love, and so be free to give ourselves away for our brothers and sisters.
So, this Christmas, let us thank God for being Emmanuel, God-with-us. Let us remember the communion of the material as the sacrament of our spiritual communion. Let us remember God, praying that God will re-member, reconstitute us, that he will receive our offerings in the Mass, receive our bodies – physical, social, cultural and ecclesial, and receive them as that of his Son. Let us pray that God the Father will receive us in his Son, because in the Incarnation, his Son has given himself to us forever.