There is a marvelous story told about a four year old child who woke up one night frightened, convinced that there were all kinds of spooks and monsters in her room. In terror she fled to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother took her back to her room and, after soothing her fears, assured her that things were safe there: “You don’t have to be afraid. After I leave, you won’t be alone in the room. God will be here with you.” “I know that God will be here,” the child protested, “but I need someone in this room who has some skin.”
This little story can teach us a whole lot about the incarnation. God knows that we all need a God who has some skin for we are creatures of the senses. We see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Everything that goes into to us enters through those senses, just as everything that comes out of us exits through them. Through our senses we are open to the world and to each other. Through them, we communicate.
In the incarnation, God comes to us through the senses. In Jesus, the ineffable, spiritual, invisible reality of God, which is beyond all physical sense, becomes precisely something which can be seen, heard, and touched through the senses.
This mystery, the incarnation, is the centre of our entire faith. It is also often misunderstood. What we tend to not understand is its ongoing nature. Generally, we understand the incarnation too much as a thirty-three year experiment: In Jesus, God takes on flesh, lives on earth for thirty-three years, and then, after his death and resurrection, ascends back to God and sends us the Holy Spirit (who has no flesh and is not physical). In this view, God took on flesh, for a while, but has returned to heaven and is now working invisibly again.
What is wrong with this view? One main thing: The ascension of Jesus does not end, nor fundamentally change, the incarnation. God continues still to have real flesh on earth. Jesus returned to God but, in a manner of speaking, Christ did not. The word “Christ”, as we know, is not Jesus’ surname name; for example, as we might say in: Jack Smith, Susan Parker, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not have a surname. The word “Christ” is a title which connotes God’s anointed presence on earth.
Hence, Scripture uses the expression the Body of Christ, to mean three things equally: Jesus, the historical person who walked the earth for thirty-three years; the Eucharist, which is also the physical presence of God on earth; and the body of believers, which is also a real presence of God. Hence, to use the phrase, the Body of Christ is to refer, at one and the same time, to Jesus, the Eucharist, and the community of faith.
This is not an exaggeration, nor a metaphor. To say that the body of believers is the body of Christ is not to say something that Scripture does not. The reverse is true. Scripture, in particular St. Paul, never tells us that the body of believers replaces Christ’s body, nor that it represents Christ’s body, nor even that it is Christ’s mystical body. It says simply: “We are Christ’s body.” This is must be understood physically.
To say that the body of believers is the body of Christ is not any more of a metaphor than to say that the Eucharist is the body of Christ. The Eucharist and the body of believers are not like the body of Christ. Each is the body of Christ, just as Jesus is the body of Christ.
We have always been a bit wary of emphasizing that the community of believers truly is the body of Christ and have always been more comfortable with it as a metaphor or as some vague mystical reality. But that caution is wrongly placed. The danger lies in not emphasizing the raw physical truth of that reality. That we are the body of Christ, physically, has immense implications. Simply put, in the incarnation, God gives us divine powers, the exact powers that were in Jesus himself.
Jesus makes this clear. In John’s gospel (14, 12), he tells us that, as his disciples, we can do all the things that he does, and even greater things. This is not a pious platitude. If we ever understood its real truth we would no longer doubt that the gospel is “good news” and we would sing out joy filled Christmas songs until our lungs burst. The power that came into our world with Jesus, at that first Christmas, is still with us. It is in us. Like Jesus, we too can freely dispense God’s forgiveness, heal each other with God’s touch, and reach through death itself to save our loved ones. Christmas begins the mystery of God’s body on earth. Our own bodies are part of that mystery. Advent is all about realizing this.