The incarnation is a source of ongoing wonder for me. It’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the very idea of God putting on human flesh. And the church is called Christ’s body, not just in a spiritual sense, but in an incarnational sense, a flesh and blood body.
Richard Rohr says that maybe God had to become a body in Jesus because it was important for us to know that it is good to be a human body. God does not despise a woman’s womb, it is good! God comes to us, and reveals himself to us, by being born of a woman. God does not turn away from the blood, the sweat, the birthing, the nursing, the caressing—it’s all good! It’s a central part of the Christmas message.
Our bodies are amazing; they can see, touch, feel, do things, and know things. We experience God’s creation through our senses. Our amazing bodies created by God, each one uniquely reflecting our Creator’s very own image, are good. Rejoice! Immanuel, God with us, is here, living within his people, wearing human flesh.
At the same time we celebrate and care for our wonderfully created bodies, we must acknowledge a tendency to place evil there, in our flesh, in our bodies. Perhaps because our flesh is more visible, it’s easier for us to focus on sexual sins or sins like addictions, sins that happen in our flesh, in our bodies. At the same time, we have become quite comfortable with other less visible, less physical sins, such as pride, greed, and abuse of power.
In Safe Church, we are close to stories of sin that happen in the flesh; bodies that have been raped, traumatized, and harmed. Because of our tendency to focus on sins that happen in our flesh, greater shame is involved when these kinds of sins happen. It can be easier for us to misplace shame and even blame those who show the physical impacts of the sin in their bodies, rather than on those whose consequence is less visible, for example, the one who misused power.
Gender roles also play into where we place blame and shame. It can seem that the Lord called all women to be holy, while giving men a pass, you know, boys will be boys. Working in Safe Church ministry, we hear story after story from those victimized by abuse being re-victimized by shunning, shaming, and blaming. The messages heard become internalized in our flesh, in bodies and minds, described in words like ruined, spoiled, or damaged goods. Picture instead, what it might mean to internalize the Christmas message of incarnation. Jesus came to show us that it’s good to have a human body! God created us, in the flesh, and God said, “It is very good!” (Gen. 1:31)
Our bodies possess amazing capacities and designs to deal with trauma that might otherwise overwhelm us. I once wrote a paper in graduate school about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, a.k.a. multiple personalities). The title of the class was “maladaptive behavior." But as I wrote and as I interviewed a friend diagnosed with DID, I came to understand how very adaptive this behavior was. This special capacity, and how it allowed my friend to live with the trauma that she had experienced, really stretched my thinking.
At the same time, she was on a journey to learn and to overcome, not all the resulting behaviors were helpful at this point in her life. It was important for her to embrace the behaviors that her amazing body had developed to live in spite of the ongoing trauma. This was good! She, along with her body, were good. Even in all their parts!
She did not need shaming or shunning, (she'd had quite enough of that, thank you) rather she needed to embrace the goodness of her flesh, her beloved body created in God’s image. Another great need was for lament, grieving the losses, grieving what was stolen from her in the horrendous abuse that she experienced.
The church generally is good at identifying sin and talking about the need for repentance and forgiveness. We are less practiced, and not as good in lament, dealing with the consequences of sin, especially sin done against us. Shunning, shaming, and blaming is so much easier than entering into the pain of others, grieving with them, reminding them (and us) over and again of God’s unfailing love in the midst of unimaginable harm.
Maybe it would help, as Ruth Everhart pointed out in her book, The #MeToo Reckoning, if we thought of abuse as theft, taking what does not belong to us —that’s easier to understand. Perhaps that would help us place blame where it belongs, rather than where the impacts are visible, in the body of the one harmed. Perhaps we simply need to become more aware of and conversant in sins that are less physical, and therefore less visible, such as pride and of abuse of power.
The clear message of Christmas is that God chose to put on human flesh and dwell with us. It is good to have a human body! Jesus shows us that, no matter how abused or broken, we, his body, the Church, the Bride, are beloved by God. Nothing can change that, nothing ever. (See Romans 8:37-39) This is the message to share, not just at Christmas, but all year long. Immanuel, God with us in human flesh. It’s all very good!