This post is part of the series “Christmas at My House” – reflections on the wide diversity of Christmas experiences.
The messages of ‘God is with us’ and ‘light in the darkness’ and ‘hope in despair’ are favorites at Christmastime, and this year perhaps most important of all is Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All. (Not necessarily biblical exactly, but I think Jesus would have been on board.)
But what often escapes our attention is the mystery and beauty of the incarnation. The way that God slips into skin and lives a fully human experience. And it got me thinking…
I got to speak to the confirmation students at my church about body image and body positivity a few weeks ago. It’s a message they can’t hear enough, and quite frankly, none of us are immune.
A room full of seventh and eighth graders – some who have already hit their growth spurt, some still looking like kids. And, in a departure from the chatty norm, these young adults were listening to every word. Because this struggle is real for all of us!
I remember being one of those hyper-critical junior high girls who felt all the pressures – and thanks to the trendy jeans at the time, which had size labels on the outside, I wore a 25”x33” loooong after I should have! (Who else had those Silvers? Big elephant flares? Man, we were cool.)
For so long, my life was me against my body. Dislike, disgust, dissatisfaction. Exercise as me against my body, trying to get it to conform. But no matter what I did, it was never enough to satisfy the ‘ideal.’
I don’t want to just blame The Media (though they do a pretty good job of overloading us with unrealistic images of ‘perfection’ – especially now that celebs photoshop even their instagram pics!), because that pressure only works if we give in. If we give it our power.
We have to realize that we also set impossible standards for ourselves, we live with a non-stop critical dialogue, we are always comparing our body to the bodies of others. We idolize self-punishment and call it exercise. We idolize unhealthy and obsessive restriction and call it ‘detoxing’.
While I’m all for health and wellness and movement, I’m fearful of all the ways those terms get commandeered, and used as justification for absolutely unhealthy behavior.
And here’s where our theology of incarnation comes in.
If we think that a body is something to be endured, despised, judged, punished… what does that say about God?
God who gave us bodies and God who lived in one? (Put aside your ‘divinity of Jesus’ theology for a moment, ok?) Is a body something that God deigned to inhabit because it was the only way to reach those pathetic wrecks called humans? Is our bag of bones some punishment that we carry around? Some cosmic joke meant to torture and shame us all our days?
I had the privilege, and it was a privilege, to work at an eating disorder clinic a few years ago. And it was amazing, as I worked with patients (who came in all shapes and sizes and ages and genders, by the way – remember, none of us are immune!), how often I would hear patients ‘spiritualize’ their eating disorders.
If we could only get rid of these pesky earth suits, sublimate the flesh, which is obviously the only source of all of our sin and brokenness, then we would be spiritual. Then we would be perfect.
Now, I don’t know if this spiritualizing was the motivation or the justification for behavior, but either way, is that the message we are sending? Though this Gnostic approach may not be our official theology, is that the message we are sending on accident?
But what if we look at it differently?
Instead of a body being a last-resort for God, what if it went like this: the experience of being in a body is something that God wanted to have?
That laughter and hugs, eating and sleeping, running and playing were so wonderful that God was like, ‘Count me in!’
That the smell of fresh bread and the feeling of jumping in a lake were so vital and beautiful, God couldn’t stand to miss out on the experience.
That God’s life wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the absolute joy and freedom of feeling at home in a body in the world.
It wasn’t until I began a deep yoga practice that I learned the joy of being in a body. And it’s not because I could get myself into twisty bendy impressive (vanity-inducing) poses, but because it felt so damn good to move and breathe and sweat and stretch. Because bodies know things, bodies can’t lie to us – their wisdom is rich and tuning in to the inner (inner!) voice is fascinating.
Because the body has a brilliance and a radiance all its own that longs to be expressed. I can’t explain it any better than that – but I totally get that this whole being-human-in-a-body thing is something that God could not and would not live without.
Could it be? Could it even be so? That God came to be Emmanuel, God with us, not stopping low enough to be seen and known, stuffed into this miserable sin-sack that is never enough, but because the brilliance and beauty of bodies was enticing, even irresistible?
That something would have been missing from God’s experience without a body? That, to be complete in joy and love and all that good stuff, bodies are essential? Perhaps we are all indeed ‘spiritual beings having a human experience’ as Teilhard de Chardin says, but what a pleasure this human bodily experience is! Thank God for bodies.