Christmas means many things, but, at its heart, lies the concept of the incarnation, namely, the idea that God takes on human flesh, a human body, becomes physical. At Christmas, “the word was made flesh.”
That’s significant for many reasons. Among other things, the fact that God is born into our material world and takes on a human body blesses and sanctifies the physical world and our own bodies. It also assures us that we can find meaning and salvation without having to denigrate either our bodies or the physical world.
This is clear in the Christmas message and is taught explicitly in the way in which Jesus is born. His birth was real, physical, earthy, and, like all human births, messy.
We don’t often allow ourselves to think like that. Mostly we idealize and spiritualize the birth of Jesus so as to imagine it as privileged, somehow miraculous, and thus removed from the mess, blood, smells, and brute physicality of normal human birth. But, as scripture assures us, Jesus was fully human in every way and that means too that he was born through the pain, mess, and earthiness of normal childbirth, complete with all that attends that – blood, messy afterbirth, the need for washing.
Moreover, scripture tells us that Jesus was not born in a cathedral, with the sweet smell of incense perfuming the air, stained-glass windows providing a special light, or soft organ music intimating the presence of the sacred. Indeed he wasn’t even born in a hospital, where modern medicine and sanitation help cover the mess and the smells of childbirth. The gospels tell us instead that he was born in a barn and then laid into an animals’ feeding trough.
Contemporary biblical scholarship nuances this somewhat by telling us that we don’t really know exactly where Jesus was born and that the gospel writers don’t necessarily want us to believe that he was born in a barn and physically placed in a manger. But the gospels do want us to take those symbols seriously, and that still makes the point: Jesus’ birth is placed inside a stable because, among other things, barns don’t look like cathedrals and animals don’t smell like incense. There’s a brute earthiness to a barn, smells you don’t get in church. As for the manger, the feeding trough, well, that makes sense too, given that Jesus will tell us that his “flesh is food for the life of the world”. If one of the main purposes of Jesus’ life is to end up as food, as Eucharist, on a table (we call an altar), shouldn’t he be born in a feeding trough? The wood of the manger and the wood of the altar are one and the same, feeding tables, both of them.
But it’s difficult for us both to imagine and to accept how truly physical, earthy, and messy all of this really is. Everyone struggles with this, conservatives and liberals alike: Conservatives are forever wanting to make Jesus’ actual physical birth a miraculous event, with Mary delivering Jesus in some privileged way so that there isn’t at his birth the normal groaning, blood, and mess of childbirth. Liberals don’t fare much better. They’re forever trying to turn the event of Jesus’ birth into something more symbolic than physical (which then, like the conservatives’ miracle, doesn’t have any real blood).
The same is true for most World Religions. Invariably salvation is seen as an escape from the flesh, an escape from the physical, an escape from dirt, an escape from mess, all done in the name of the spiritual. The way to God, in most religious traditions and in most ordinary imaginations, involves escaping the physical and frowning upon mess.
But that’s not the way of Christianity, as the birth of Jesus makes plain. In the incarnation, Christmas, God enters the world, becomes physical, and, by doing that, assures us that the spiritual does not set itself against the physical, that the sacred is not antithetical to the smells of the human body, and that God is not just found in churches and in places that are clean and reverent. The old moral dualisms – the spiritual against the physical, the clean against the messy – break down in the incarnation.
What Christmas teaches us is that God is as much domestic as monastic, a God of the body as well as of the soul, a God who is found in barns as well as in churches, in kitchens as well as in cathedrals.
Among the many things we celebrate at Christmas therefore is the sacredness of our own lives, in all their physicality. What’s made holy by Jesus’ birth? Most everything that’s physical: nature, our homes, our kitchens, our workplaces, our barns, our restaurants, our bars, our sports facilities, and, not least, our own bodies, including sex and the way babies are born.
Spirit too, of course, is blessed and made holy by the incarnation, but the Word was already spiritual. At Christmas, it “was made flesh.”