The Carnality of Christmas – December 25, 2016
Let us pray.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
Their great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
Merry Christmas, everyone! Whatever craziness you’ve been through this December, you’re finally here—Christmas Day. Breathe a sigh of relief. There can’t be too many presents left for you to buy now (and if there are, well, good luck!). There won’t be too many Messiah concerts or Nutcracker performances left for you to attend. The office parties are all over, church services will slow down (much to the clergy’s delight), and you’ll decide to take down the tree soon enough. Our Decembers are really something, aren’t they? Every year, we get seduced yet again by the archetypal ideal of Christmas we have been pushed from birth, and we run ourselves ragged trying to achieve, just this once, that perfect vision we have always desired. We pack our schedules full of Christmas obligations, and we can easily feel like there’s no room in our lives for anything but Christmas.
Yet somehow in the craziness of the past few weeks a small group of St. Paul’s community members and I found the time and the willingness to gather for an Advent book study based on Kelly Brown Douglas’ book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. As the world around us worked tirelessly to make the fantasy of Christmas happen, we immersed ourselves in a problem that was all too real: the disproportionate persecution and killing of young black men in this country we call the land of the free and the home of the brave. The hour and a half we set aside each week was well-spent, and led to honest conversations and tough encounters across lines of difference, as well as a pledge to continue to engage with one another and strive for understanding and justice in the weeks and months to come. But the juxtaposition between our difficult dialogues with one another and the idealized Christmas of the surrounding culture could at times be jarring. Everywhere, songs and television shows and advertisements were broadcasting an image of peace and love and all being right in the world, while we, time and time again, were being presented with a host of evidence far to the contrary—proof that our society was not always peaceful or loving, especially if you happened to be brown or black, and that everything was not all right.
Though the focus of our book study and the approaching holiday of Christmas seemed to clash, Christmas and the movement for racial justice in fact have quite a lot to say to each other. We tend to forget it, but we all know that Christmas is not really about the snow on the ground or the holiday sweaters we wear or the Christmas trees and Christmas cookies. It’s not, as much as I hate to admit it, about fancy processions in festal vestments or “O Come, All Ye Faithful” or the choral catalogue of John Rutter. It’s not even, I would argue, really about the angels and the shepherds or Herod and the Wise Men. It’s about the Word becoming flesh, not just about God deigning to visit human beings in their natural habitat, but about God actually becoming human and living in a human body just like yours or mine. Christmas is not some picturesque, charming manger scene to be peered at from afar or some delightfully spiritual lesson about love and peace to be intellectually enjoyed when it’s convenient for us. Christmas necessarily involves the delicate touch of human skin, the humid hotness of human breath and the persistent pounding of the human heart. Christmas is carnal and visceral, immediate and undeniably real; it is about the provocative and significant fact that God finds the human body holy enough to take on that form concretely for himself.
Christmas thus teaches us to value human bodies as God has valued them in the Child Jesus. It further challenges us to honor God’s dwelling among us by acting towards the bodies of others as we would act towards the body of God. It requires us to be angry when certain bodies are not treated with the dignity they deserve. And the news, of course, provides us with plenty of material to be angry about: from the overwhelming evidence of continued racism and racialized violence to the death of innocent civilians in violent conflict, from the struggles of refugees and immigrants to find a decent place to live to the LGBT folks who still search for a way to safely and openly be themselves, from the somber tales of those who have suffered sexual assault and harassment to the poor in all places—including here in this country—who lack adequate healthcare and nutrition. Bodies are hurting everywhere, and we continue the project of honoring human bodies –a project that God began so long ago in the stable of Bethlehem—every time that we work to bring about justice for all human bodies in the here-and-now.
By “all human bodies,” I mean all of them—including our own. If Christmas underlines the importance of valuing the bodies of others, Christmas also urges us to value our own bodies as holy temples worthy of God’s visitation. Yet we live in an age and a culture that makes it more than a little bit difficult to do so. How often have you considered the holiness of your body?, I wonder. On the one hand, many of us stuff our bodies with sugar, drink and use drugs to excess and sleep not nearly as much as we should; on the other hand, we spend untold money on cosmetics, exercise compulsively to keep ourselves in shape and still eye with longing the doctored photos of celebrities and models whose idealized perfection is never within reach for ourselves. Both our wasteful, overindulgent lifestyles and our obsession with meeting mythical physical standards are symptoms of the same disease: a lack of fundamental respect for our bodies. In both gratifying any momentary desire for pleasure and recklessly pursuing any trick that promises to improve our surface characteristics, we distrust that our bodies are gifts of God, good—in and of themselves.
I know this isn’t the type of message that goes down easily with Christmas morning Cinnamon buns, but Christmas, I think, is intended—first and foremost—not to comfort us, but to shock us, to unsettle us, and even, perhaps, to upset us. In the act of becoming human on Christmas, God seeks to change the game, to switch things up, to get our attention, to radically redirect us towards loving the bodies we have neglected and disrespected for so long. We’ve avoided God’s challenge so far, preferring, as we are wont to do, to sing the same carols we’ve sung for years on end, to put up the same decorations that we put up last year, to go to the same parties and shop for the same presents, yet there is still the chance to finally pay attention and be changed this year. Why not try? After all, if Christmas doesn’t change who we are, what’s the point, really?