The Truth of Christmas:
It’s Hard to Believe!
by Tom Ryan CSP
The event we are preparing to celebrate in the feast of Christmas is mind-boggling: the incarnation. That is to say, the enfleshment of God in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other religion in the world that makes such a bold and radical assertion of faith.
From here on out, we are saying, God is identified with and discovered within this bodiliness, this fleshiness, this materiality, this sensuality, this worldliness, this passion. In the Incarnation, God took the world as part of God’s own self.
Ever afterward, we have no right to dismiss this world as some second-rate practice field for the real life in heaven. The Incarnation states that there is no practice, and nothing is second-rate. Life in this world is already penetrated with the very divinizing energies of God.
Where the body is concerned, we would have to say that Christianity has by and large not walked its talk. It has resisted the radical nature of its own good news. On the one hand, it has the highest theological evaluation of the body amongst all the religions of the world, and on the other hand, it has given little attention to the body’s role in the spiritual life in positive terms. High theology; low practice.
What is the “body language” of our relationship with God? Does it includes fasting and feasting, exercise and rest, suffering and sexual intercourse?
Have you ever noticed how all the criteria Jesus offers in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel for who gets into heaven are directly related to caring for each other’s bodily well-being? Our catechism calls them, not by accident, corporal (from the Latin, corpus, or bodily) works of mercy: feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless and burying the dead.
We are blessed to see in our time the movement toward a more genuinely holistic spirituality, one that recognizes if it’s good for my body, it’s good for my soul, and vice-versa. There’s only one “me”—an enfleshed spirit—that it all comes back to.
A truly incarnational spirituality also involves an active concern for the body of Christ that finds visible expression in the church community to which we belong, and active concern for the body of citizens who make up our civic community. It reaches even to the health and well-being of the earthbody on which we walk, whose water we drink and whose air we breathe.
The feast of Christmas we prepare to celebrate invites us to an ever-deepening recognition that we have not been burdened with this world and this flesh in order that we might weasel our way out. Rather, we have been gifted with these bodies because this is where God dwells. All flesh is holy. It is in these bodies that we will work out our salvation. Since the only life we know is earthly and sensual, it follows that this is the stuff of our spirituality. The water of baptism. The bread and wine of the Eucharist. The oil of confirmation.
The opening chapter of the book of Genesis affirms that we are created male and female in God’s own image and that the body reflects God’s own goodness. With the events written about in the New Testament, an incarnational (from the Latin in carnis, literally: in the flesh) faith is born. To find the significant New Testament reference points, one needs to look no further than the major festivals of Christian faith.
In the festival of Christmas, it is precisely God becoming flesh in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, that is celebrated. In the feast of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Jesus is not only revealed as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, but he also gives us a glimpse into our own human dignity and destiny. At Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. And forty days later, on the feast of Jesus’ bodily Ascension into heaven, Christians find a foreshadowing of the entry of their own embodied nature into the intimate embrace of God’s life.
Ten days after the Ascension comes Pentecost: the Holy Spirit, God’s own life, is poured into vessels of clay, given in this mortal flesh. In short, there is every indication that salvation does not mean getting out of this skin, but being transfigured and glorified in it.
As you kneel before the image of a child in a crib this Christmas, contemplate the amazing truth proclaimed: our embodied nature is the place that God, for love of us, chose to call home.