When looking at a baby, we don’t generally wonder how they will die. My mother didn’t ask herself if I would develop an incurable neuro-degenerative disease twenty years ‘early.’ I didn’t ask if my daughters would be murdered by a romantic partner, or perish in a rock-climbing accident, or develop a rare and virulent cancer, or be killed by a terrorist. (None of these terrible things have happened to either of them.)
Simeon told Mary her son would be ‘appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.’ And while he did warn the young mother that ‘a sword will pierce your soul as well’ (Luke 2: 34a-35), no one said anything about a shameful and agonizing public execution.
The human body is such a resilient, beautiful, and heartbreakingly fragile thing, vulnerable to violence, disease, and mishap. In what most of us regard as the best-case scenario, we get ‘the same amount of youth as everyone else, but a great big extra helping of being very old and deaf and creaky’ as Terry Pratchett writes in Wintersmith. But who wants to think about the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to when holding a baby?
As it turns out, a whole lot of Christian art does. Countless depictions of the infancy and childhood of Jesus over the centuries explicitly presage his horrible death. The icon known as ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ shows the young Jesus confronted by angels who show him the instruments of his bloody sacrifice. For those with eyes to see, such images are a powerful lesson in the brevity and uncertainty of human life, and the necessity of living always with the knowledge that death is always near. ‘In the midst of life, we are in death” (Hebrews 11:12a).
But not all eyes see this image in that way, and not all hearts are receptive to the suffering God. Some see a dismal preoccupation with death. A friend of mine insists that ‘All the Abrahamic religions are death cults.’ Others had a distorted idea of ‘original sin’ dinned into them so incessantly as children and now reject Christ’s mercy because they were made to feel guilty for his death.
Still others react negatively to what they perceive as Christian disdain for the body. Years ago, I was one of only two Christian writers for a large, amalgamated Yoga-and-Buddhism-themed blog. More than once, angry readers challenged my writing on Yoga-related topics because Christians ‘hate the body.’ I asked one particularly aggressive commenter if he could cite anything from the Gospels that suggested hatred for the body.
He replied with about a dozen passages from the letters of Paul. Opting not to point out his error, I looked up the verses he cited, and found that every single one of them used a Greek word, usually confusingly translated as ‘the flesh’ which refers, not to the physical body, but to the unruly ‘carnal nature’ that Paul saw as debased and sinful. Centuries of Paul’s difficult ideas about ‘the flesh’ being at war with the soul, the seepage of Greek philosophy into the way we read Paul, and this truly unhelpful translation have resulted in questionable theology, preaching, and hymn-writing that liken the body to a ‘prison of clay’ or the like. In a disconcerting scriptural version of the telephone game, these ideas became increasingly misogynistic, sexually repressive, and shame-oriented as they traveled down the centuries. No wonder people think Christians ‘hate the body.’
And yet, the whole Christ enterprise is founded upon God taking on a human body. ‘The Word became flesh, and lived among us’ (John 1:14). We celebrate the Incarnation at the Winter Solstice because Jesus brings the light of God’s love into the very darkest times. Unlike the angels who showed the child Jesus the instruments of his coming death, Christmas shows us God’s instrument of abundant life—a flesh and blood human instrument, born to a human woman in a stable full of animals. I’m sure it was loud, dirty, painful, and frightening. But in Jesus, God lived a human life and died a human death. And though our lives can end in myriad ways, they all begin as Jesus’ life did—with water breaking, contractions, blood, sweat, tears—and hope.
The Truth from Below
When Wisdom made the galaxies,
And then was born on Mary’s knees,
Then Joseph wiped the blood away,
And wrapped placenta in the hay.
From fashioning the furthest star,
Love came to join us as we are;
Took on a body–dust and clay–
In the accustomed, messy way.
Why, then, did the Apostle say,
To us who celebrate today
And gaze in wonder at the crèche,
“Make no provision for the flesh”?