Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

Incarnate Endings

I dug my first grave this week. There’s simply no way to deny the physicality of life when you’re standing in a three-foot deep hole the purpose of which is to prevent animals from digging up the body of your mom’s dog.

I am not generally good with dead beings, and I was worried about my reaction when taking Brave Soul out of the box and folding back the sheet to see where her head was. To my surprise, she looked peaceful rather than disturbingly dead. She had been sick for a long time, and even her body seemed glad to be at rest. It was the first time I could imagine participating in the ritual of washing a loved one to prepare her for burial.

The day before, I had watched a master taxidermist prepare a condor carcass. At first, I internally shied away, but a friend and I had been discussing the material nature of love. It doesn’t get much more material than a man with a deep respect and affection for birds finding just the right place to poke a sharp metal rod through the skin. This collection of feathers, bones, and skin used to be a condor and is still matter, still existent in its own right, still a manifestation of love, just a different manifestation now.

While we’re alive, our spirit and our body are one. That’s incarnation. In another context, this same friend quoted a Buddhist teacher as saying, “I am a body” as opposed to “I have a body.” A body isn’t something to transcend during life. It is our existence.

There will come a time when we are no longer a body, when we are no longer part of creation in the way we’re familiar with. As we covered Brave Soul’s body with dirt, Mom said, “Take care of her, Mother Earth,” which struck me as a truth. Regardless of our beliefs, the matter of which we are composed will return to Earth’s embrace in one way or another.

I don’t know what happens to our spirits. Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of dying as “leaving the planet.” I thought that maybe Brave Soul paused on her way out, cocking her head at us before she ran off across the field.

Spiders and Eucharist, Together at Last

If you want to convince yourself of the incarnational quality of this existence, I suggest the Nature Channel, especially when it’s live at your house. A big spider has been hanging out in my front window, and this week I watched her spin her web. (OK Australians, not as big as your spiders but bigger than your average household arachnid. And yes, clearly it’s a she because Charlotte’s Web.)

How differently would we conceive of everything if we used the bottom of our abdomens not to expel waste products but to craft a tool that sustained our lives? If we had eight dexterous extremities that bent in all sorts of creepy ways? Nothing would be the same, beginning with the non-creepiness of the leg bending.

Our bodies determine how we experience this world. At church, some people are not well enough to walk to the front to receive Communion, and so we bring it to them. I don’t always respond with compassion to others’ infirmities and had to remind myself to see beyond one woman’s failing body to the divinity within her.

Then my perception shifted, and I realized that God isn’t separate from her aging. We don’t share in divinity despite our physical state but rather through our physical state, whatever it happens to be.

God is very much in our physical nature. How could it be otherwise when that nature shapes our relationship to reality? It’s not the only thing affecting that relationship, but it’s always part of the equation. We can change our attitudes and attachments, but if you’re six feet tall, life will always look different than if you’re five foot two—or if you happen to spin webs for a living.

And it is in this life, shaped by this physical reality, shared with these spiders, that we encounter the holy. God is at our fingertips and in our fingertips. We don’t have to go anywhere or change anything to find what we’re seeking. We can recognize its presence as our own.