My son was at that age when they never stop asking questions. We were driving past the local convent. In the garden was a big, white, marble statue.
“Dad, is that Jesus?”
“Dad, is Jesus like God… but with bones?”
“Y’ know son, that’s not a bad way of putting it. Not bad at all.”
All these years later, I still like my son’s way of putting it. I reckon he put his finger on something important, something that’s a helpful reminder as we approach Christmas.
Christmas, you see, is the Christian feast of the incarnation. That word, “incarnation” comes from the same root as carne, the Spanish word for meat, you know, as in chilli con carne – chilli with meat. At Christmas we celebrate the gloriously messy mystery of all that is God being fleshed out, hung on bones, pumping with blood.
The coming of God in Jesus at Christmas is, of course, pregnant with manymeanings, bursting with a thousand messages, deep messages, lofty messages – messages about peace and love; messages about human significance, human value, human worth. Quite right too, Christmas is about such things, but Christmas also speaks to us about something more down to earth. Christmas tells us that God is OK with bones and blood, and all the other stuff that goes along with being embodied creatures.
You will, no doubt, have noticed that it has become routine at Christmas for church folk to bemoan the rampant materialism of the season – the overindulgence, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the tinsel, the trivia, the tsunami of adverts, the cost, the lusting after things, the waste. And, of course, it’s hard to deny that our culture has become obscene in its obsession with stuff, so, when Christians complain, we do have a point, but only up to a point.
You see if we are not careful, we can become just a bit too po-faced in our approach to Christmas; a tad too prissy; overly spiritual; excessively ethereal; way too wispy. We can easily spend so much time and energy complaining about commercialism and excess that we forget that, theologically speaking, Christmas is a celebration of the significance of stuff.
God, it seems, was OK with the pushing and the groaning, the squeezing and screaming, the blood, the mucus and everything else that goes along with the thoroughly fleshy business of birth. God was OK with becoming a podgy, snotty, windy, baby. God was perfectly at home as a scruffy kid with scabby knees, grubby hands and dirt under his fingernails. God was content to grow into a pimply youth and, as a young man, God no doubt took satisfaction in the aching muscles of honest labour and, like many a joiner before and since, I imagine he relished the smell of resin as he ripped into a lump of wood.
We follow someone who, when the wine ran out at a party, supplied enough to swim in; who went fishing and got more than a little carried away. We follow someone who promised the thirsty not just a sip, oh no, not even a slug, no way. He promised way more even than a bottle. Get this, he said we could each have our own river! A Humber for me, a Thames for you and an entire Mersey for every single Scouser. We follow someone who, when he wanted us to remember him, suggested we chew on a hunk of bread and swill it down with a mouthful of vino. Hardly surprising when you remember that this someone was the incarnation of the God who, way back at the beginning, squatted in the mud and squidged a human being into shape before bringing it to life by blowing up its nose.
OK, I admit it, I’m labouring the point. But that’s because I want you to get it. It’s important. Why? Well, because we are all too prone to turn our Christianity into something far too insubstantial, something that runs the risk of losing touch with the muck and bullets of everyday life. There is a cosy, spiritualised form of our faith that is all about singing and praying, services and thinking, but not enough about stuff.
Christmas reminds us that God loves us in our fleshiness. Not just our souls, our spirits, our minds, but also our bodies. God takes bodies so seriously that he made sure that his was raised from the dead and then he took it back to heaven with him. God takes bodies so seriously that ours are going to get resurrected too.
Of course, this means that we need to look after them, but it also means that it’s OK to enjoy them. God gave us bodies that can relish flavour, revel in a good tune, drink in beauty, be transported by a long-forgotten aroma and take comfort in the touch of another body.
So, yes, excess and abuse are wrong, but so is stinginess and so is being embarrassed by that in which God delights. Three cheers then for gravy and XBoxes, Laphraoig and Lynx (well, maybe not Lynx). Thank God for Holy flesh. ‘Tis the season to celebrate the sacredness of stuff. Let’s party like Jesus! Eat! Drink! Be Merry! For today – in God – in these bodies – we live.
Revd Glen Marshall – Co-Principal of Northern Baptist College & BA Programme Leader