Faith when matter really matters

Dec 24, 2020

Christmas is not about Santa Claus, consumerism, or even happy families. It’s about God’s radical entry into humanity in the person of Jesus.

It’s odd, in a way, to live in a society that has largely repudiated its religious roots but still draws heavily on imagery created by a now almost abandoned Christian past. Yet here we are celebrating Christmas (literally ‘Christ Mass’) as a kind of secular family holiday, with Santa Claus—remotely based on the third century bishop, Nicholas of Myra—pretty much replacing Jesus as the central figure of the whole event.

But, fear not, Dear Reader! This is not a diatribe about ‘putting Christ back into Christmas.’ Rather, I’ll reflect on the deeper theological and symbolic meaning of Jesus’ birth, because I believe it has profound contemporary relevance for us. The gospel accounts of Jesus birth are quite unsentimental. They depict a woman giving birth in a ‘stable’, most likely a cave in the hills around Bethlehem, with a hut at the entrance used by those caring for cattle. The infant is cradled in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. The focus is on a poor couple with a new-born, unable to get accommodation in town.

This simple scene is the source of the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation. This means that the Creator God, in the person of Jesus, entered totally into the human condition. Sure, notions of incarnation are found in other religions like Hinduism, where Krishna is an avatar or descendent of the God Vishnu. But in Christianity, the relationship between God, humankind and the world is conceived of in a uniquely intimate way.

The nature of that relationship has been long debated. What I’ll do here is focus on how the New Testament, the primary source of Christian belief, understood Jesus’ birth and his embrace of the human condition. At the core of its understanding of Jesus’ humanity is the Hebrew word בשר (‘basar’)—in Greek σάρξ (‘sarx’)—meaning flesh, physical matter, the meat and substance of our bodies, even sexual intercourse, as in ‘the two will become one flesh’ (Ephesians 5:31). Flesh here is understood as transitory and mortal, that which most roots us in the stuff of the earth, our materiality, the fact that we are the product of a long evolution from the most primitive forms of matter.

The New Testament says bluntly that God in Jesus entered into the physical, bodily flesh of humankind, the materiality shared by us and everything else in the world. It says that Jesus loved, laughed and cried, was sometimes furiously angry, was terrified, afraid and depressed, suffered pain and illness and finally died an excruciating death. The best-known text highlighting this is at the beginning of John’s gospel (1:14), where he says ‘the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us’, that is the creative Word of God took on our humanity by becoming one with us in every aspect, including the sheer vulnerability of natural birth and infancy. The reference to ‘pitching his tent’ is the literal meaning of the text which is usually watered-down to ‘dwelt among us.’

The belief in Jesus’ full humanity was very important to John. In his First Letter (4:2) he says unequivocally that everyone who ‘confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God,’ and that anyone who denies this ‘is not of God.’ John’s emphasis on the humanity of Jesus is most likely derived from his concern about the influence of dualistic, Gnostic/Docetic sects which were already influencing Christianity. These beliefs spiritualized and de-humanized Jesus, making him only seem human, a kind of a ‘superman’. For John, the unequivocal test of genuine Christian belief was that God in Jesus ‘came in the flesh.’ Paul re-enforces John’s focus on Jesus’ humanity when he says in a memorable phrase that God ‘made the sinless one [Jesus] into sin’ (II Corinthians 5:21). The word ‘sin’ here isn’t being used in a moral sense but refers primarily to human weakness, vulnerability, sickness, frustration, despair and the inescapable knowledge that we will die.

However, the ‘flesh’ doesn’t just refer to our material, animal side in contradistinction to the spiritual. It has no relationship to the dualistic Platonic notion of a body of flesh animated by a spiritual soul. In the biblical understanding, we don’t have a body; we are our bodies. Despite the word being recently appropriated by new-age gurus, in the NT each of us is σῶμα (‘soma’), meaning an integrated physio-spiritual unity that is summed up in the word ‘flesh’. Christianity is a faith in which matter really matters.

I said that this has important implications for our contemporary world. First, it cuts across the body/soul dualism that has had such a toxic influence on Christian life, morality and spirituality since the third century. According to this notion our bodies, our materiality, is devalued by maintaining that the real centre of our lives is focused on the soul or spirit. As the eleventh century hymn, Salve Regina says, we’re ‘the poor banished children of Eve,’ left ‘mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.’

But if God takes matter so seriously that God enters the human condition in the flesh of Jesus, then we too must take our own and the world’s materiality equally seriously. This has led contemporary Christianity not only to a more integrated anthropology but also to an ecological theology based on the doctrine of the incarnation and the re-evaluation of matter and the world. If matter really matters then the earth, biodiversity, the animals, plants, landscapes and everything that makes up the fabric of the world also matters. Everything in nature has unique value, independent of us, especially that the material earth began evolving about 4.5 billion years ago and Homo sapiens has only been here for about 190,000 years. ‘Here we are, born yesterday,’ Thomas Berry says.

Ultimately Christmas is about the transcendent God’s valuation of the material, the stuff of the world and biodiversity, that we so casually destroy and eliminate. It is about the fact that as John’s gospel says ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (3:16). The Greek here is revealing: the text says that God loved ὁ κόσμος, ‘the cosmos’, the whole of the material universe, that He embraced it all in Jesus. The environmental and ethical implications of this are staggering.

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