Incarnation: expressions of the holy in this world
Incarnation names the mystery of spirit or soul residing in our embodied or material world. From the Latin incarnatio, meaning “in the flesh,” it refers to the conception and birth of divinity in human form. First used theologically by 12th-century Christian leaders, incarnation described the belief in Jesus’ double status as both fully human and fully god. “The Word became flesh,” the gospel of John declares, describing Jesus. Which, in one translation of the Greek word logos (the word), might be understood to mean Jesus was God’s full message or expression in the world: sacred spirit made visible by his humanity.
Understood more broadly, incarnation challenges the faulty dualism of body and soul. An incarnate theology refuses the notion that our bodies tragically imprison our souls or that either body or soul is more virtuous or sacred than the other. It suggests instead a relational wholeness more akin to ancient Taoist teachings that body and soul complete one another. “Every being in the universe,” said Lao Tsu, “. . . springs into existence perfect, unconscious and free, takes on a physical body, and lets circumstances complete it.”
In this panoptic view, the advent season anticipating the story of Jesus’ birth, is one in which we watch for the holy presence of life itself as it emerges not imprisoned but fully expressed in every one of us and in the world around us. Significantly, it does not always appear where we might have expected it – under the king’s crown or the enforcement of his soldiers, in the comfort of the inn, or in the privilege of the wealthy or the wise. No. The story of Jesus’ birth reminds us that the holy is incarnate everywhere and in everyone, especially wherever our eyes may have moved on too quickly – in the unwed mother and the unplanned child, in the homeless traveler, in the bed of straw, the animals gathered round it, and the roaming shepherds giving witness to its miracle.
Other personal and contemporary stories have deepened my understanding in particular of advent’s incarnation. For instance, friends waiting as adoptive parents to be united with a new child born far away have taught me that many important preparations may not be for the birth of new life. Sometimes, more powerfully and proleptically, we wait and prepare for the birth of new relationship with life already in this world, experiencing incarnation that arises not just within us but between us.
The pandemic, too, has much to teach us about incarnation and embodied wholeness – about the sacred but messy and vulnerable nature of being bodies in a world where the blood and breath we need to live can also carry illness, even death. How to hold these seeming contradictions together? How to recognize the sacred gift delivered in the losses of our time? How to open ourselves to the miracle of relationship being born today, beneath our masks, across safe distancing, despite deep differences in faith, in immunity, in privilege, in place?
It is no accident that we focus on incarnation now – as the nights grow long in Minnesota’s northern clime and the pandemic’s persistent suffering wears our patience thin. Now, as dry husks rattle in the fields and in December winds, the mystery of spirit animating the dormant natural world keeps despair from taking hold. Beneath the hardened ground, within the bare-branched trees, life remains and rests and waits. Neither spirit nor embodiment can reign alone. The world is made of both. And we, as people of faith and wholeness, are called to hold them together in our hearts, in our relationships and communities, awaiting another turn of earth and season and a new tilt of sunlight that, in time, will beckon life forth again.
To share some time reflecting on incarnation, please join me for an online writing session: This Embodied Life.